Exclusive: Sinn Fein leader Michelle O’Neill on her rise to the top

Posted By: February 12, 2017

Michelle O’Neill hails her parents as important role models

Sunday World. Paula Mackin. Sunday, February 12, 2017


It’s hard not to like Michelle O’Neill.

As determined as she is compassionate, she is instantly impressive, smart with a fun sense of humor, she laughs with others – more importantly at herself – yet her political passion is a constant presence.

Michelle is driven by two things in life, the love of her family and the love of republicanism.

She would never turn her back on either, just as she vows not to turn her back on the people of Northern Ireland, no matter what their backgrounds.

Equality is her mantra.

Very little is known about Sinn Féin’s new leader in the North beyond coming from the village of Clonoe in Tyrone and being a single mother of two.

Soon everybody will know her.

Taking time out from her grueling schedule, she opened up to the Sunday World in her most candid interview to date.

She revealed how she coped with being a teenage mom, losing her beloved father and how she’s adjusting to taking on the biggest role of her life – so far.

She was just 16 when she became pregnant with daughter Saoirse, a Ph.D. student now living in Belfast. Yet her teenage pregnancy, thanks to her family and her own strength, was never going to prevent her making her way in life.

“Being a young mom, well it’s my life experience, it has made me what I am, it makes you stronger, I think,” she said.

“I have been responsible from a very young age obviously, but I always had tremendous support around me, a great family, so that has always been there and it’s been great. I do think it can help shape who you are.”

Relaxed and stylishly dressed, she’s every inch a political leader. But the trials, tribulations, and experiences of her past are never far from the surface.

“I know what it’s like to be in difficult situations, I know what it is like to struggle, I know what it is like to go to school and have a baby at home, and to be studying for your exams when you have a baby at home and all of those things that go with it.

“I believe if you set your mind to anything you can do it, but I am very lucky, I was very fortunate – not everybody is lucky enough to have such good support around them. I had tremendous support.”


 O’Neill with Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams

It’s not surprising the 40-year-old is who she is today, sculpted by a family she is tremendously proud of, her eyes brightening and her smile widening when she talks of any family member.

“My mummy and daddy are both equally influential; I could point to loads of people in my family. I could point to two very different grannies that influenced my life, one that is a wee lady, softly spoken with great manners and great respect and the other one who obviously had great manners and respect but was more feisty.

“She (Kathleen Doris) would have been active in civil rights, and I used to love watching her. My sense of family comes from her, she believed on a Sunday we should all eat together, she would have cooked for everybody, and I think that’s where I get the sense of family from.

“Bring everyone around a dinner table to just sit together and talk.”

Losing her politician father Basil 11 years ago is something Michelle will always struggle with, each milestone in her career tinged with a touch of sadness, always aware that he is not at her side for advice and support or to witness the political success of his daughter that would have made him burst with pride.

“I think about him all the time, no matter what event I have had. When I became Deputy Mayor (of Dungannon), when I became Mayor, whenever I went into the Assembly, whenever I became Agriculture and then Health Minister, and now this role, it always gives me a touch of nostalgia, a wee tear in the eye.

“My mom (Kathleen) is ultra-proud, again she knows this is something I have given my whole life to, so she thinks it’s just fantastic. She says she needs a secretary at the minute for all the well-wishers who keep calling.”

It’s a pride tinged sadness.

“She’s sad that my dad is not here because he was the one involved in politics, he was the one I followed. He was a councilor in Dungannon council, and then I went into Dungannon Council and took his seat. I wish he could be here.”

Life has just gotten very busy, with an election to win and a party to run, downtime is going to be a scarce commodity, but she is determined to make space in her life for the “little things.”

Although she might have to give up on the gym!

“I’m an early riser, I’m usually up for six, and I go to the gym when I can.

“I say that now, but I haven’t been in about four weeks because of everything that is going on,” she laughed.

“The guy who works in my gym says he’s going to sell a story to the paper that I actually just don’t turn up, I’ve booked into every class the past four weeks and never turned up!”

When she does find time to relax, it’s pretty much like anyone else.

“I like to do it all, box sets, a glass of wine, spending time with the kids, with friends, though I am the worst friend in the world, I am! Just ask my friends,” she laughed.

“I am very much a family person, I only have one brother, no sisters, so I like to spend my Saturday nights with them. My brother and I like to compete for who’s the best chef, I’m great!

“We have a competition over who makes the best gravy, but at the minute it is lemon and garlic chicken, that’s our current competition.

“There only was the two of us, so when we were younger I was the boss, I would torture him, I used to make him things all the time, but our dishes then would have been salad cream sandwiches and Paxo stuffing balls on a Saturday morning!

“I really shouldn’t be telling you this!”

Michelle hopes to attract a new generation of Sinn Fein voters 

Grown up kids Saoirse and Ryan couldn’t be any more proud of the hard-working mom, and the feelings are obviously mutual. Michelle separated from her husband Paddy three years ago, yet the pair remains friends.

“They have grown up with me being in politics, they have grown up with knowing that this is something I do and something that I am very passionate about. They are very proud of me obviously and Saoirse, my daughter, she is active in politics as well.”

Taking on one of the biggest jobs in Irish politics comes at a price.

“There is always sacrifices taking on a job like this. I think you have to give everything you can to the role, be committed but I think everybody has to have some downtime, sometimes when they can switch off and do something normal with their family, it makes you a better leader,” Michelle explained.

And like all women, trivial matters also occupy the corners of her overworked mind.

“Wardrobe worries, what to wear, keeping up with the house. That’s the struggles of any working woman.

“Me, I can be up and have make-up on in five minutes, I can nearly put it in on the dark! Lucky, the children, are older so it’s just myself to get out the door in the mornings.”