Political news

Who is Michelle O'Neill?

Health minister Michelle O'Neill is being tipped by some to replace Martin McGuinness
Connla Young

ALTHOUGH hotly tipped by some pundits to take over from Martin McGuinness as Sinn Féin's leader in the north, relatively little is known outside the party about Michelle O'Neill.

The 40-year-old health minister has enjoyed a rapid rise through the ranks.

From a large republican family, she was brought up in Clonoe, which is near the Co Tyrone town of Coalisland.

The mother-of-two still lives in the area and locals say she is a familiar figure around the bustling country town.

Her father Brendan, known as Basil, was a republican prisoner who went on to serve for Sinn Féin on the old Dungannon council between 1993 and 2001.

Four years later Ms O'Neill, who turned 40 earlier this month, was elected to the same council, almost topping the poll in her father's old Torrent ward.

Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams delivered a graveside oration during her father's funeral in 2006.

Ms O'Neill's family involvement in politics predated the onset of the Troubles and her grandmother Kathleen Doris was well known in east Tyrone as a civil rights campaigner.

A former pupil at St Patrick's Academy in Dungannon, the health minister is a qualified welfare rights advisor who has worked with Sinn Féin for almost 20 years, starting out as an assistant to former assembly member Francie Molloy.

Her family has close links with O'Rahilly's GAA club in Clonoe for which her father and other relatives played football.

Her uncle Paul is a former national president of Irish Northern Aid (Noraid), which raised cash for the republican movement during the Troubles.

A high-profile figure in Irish-American circles, he is known to have a close relationship with Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams.

Ms O'Neill is also a distant cousin of IRA member Tony Doris, who was killed in an SAS ambush in Coagh, Co Tyrone in 1991.

In 2010 she broke new ground by becoming Dungannon and South Tyrone council's first female mayor while also sitting as an MLA after her election to Stormont in 2007 in Mid-Ulster.

Since then has held two ministerial posts.

After initially sitting on the Stormont education and health committees, where she was deputy chair, she became minister for agriculture in 2011.

Her performance clearly impressed decision makers and in 2016, when the party opted to drop the agriculture portfolio, she was placed in charge of health.

Since her first tentative steps into public life just over a decade ago she has enjoyed the favour of Sinn Féin's leadership and was recently described as the party's “senior minister” at Stormont.

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