Sinn Féin’s new northern leader is a safe pair of hands

Posted By: January 24, 2017

Michelle O’Neill’s appointment represents a break with the past

John Manley. Irish News. Belfast.Tuesday, January 24, 2017

MUCH like the process that led to her appointment, we know comparatively little about Michelle O’Neill or her capabilities, despite the fact she’s been in the public eye for a decade.

Her party will immediately jump to the Mid Ulster MLA’s defense and point to Ms. O’Neill’s record in charge of two Stormont departments – and clearly, her appointment has the public support of the party’s elected representatives.

She represents a younger generation of post-conflict Republicans and while it could be argued that her mettle has yet to be tested, she has so far proved herself to be a safe pair of hands.

Agriculture has a reputation of being one of the less challenging Stormont portfolios, but it can also throw up unexpected difficulties.

During her four years at Dundonald House, Ms. O’Neill managed to avoid controversy, and despite efforts to implicate her in 2015’s dairy crisis, she left the job with her reputation intact.

She was also responsible for decentralizing the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, moving staff to the former army barracks at Ballykelly and other locations outside Belfast.

There are certainly merits for this move regarding redressing years of geographical discrimination, yet in an era when public funds are increasingly scarce, there’s still no business case to indicate that moving staff to Shackleton Barracks was economically viable.

In May, Ms. O’Neill switched to take charge of Stormont’s health department, a ministry which normally attracts intense scrutiny.

She’s only been in that post for little over eight months, and her tenure to date has been somewhat uneventful. Ms. O’Neill has, however, claimed credit for reversing her predecessor Edwin Poots’s ban on gay men giving blood.

Sinn Féin’s decision to select a woman with no baggage from the conflict to head up their Stormont operation is a giant step forward and one for which the implications will only become clear in the years ahead.

What we’re getting with Michelle O’Neill is not the complete, finished package but more a person who has the potential to grow into her challenging role.

In the coming months, it’s doubly important that she lives up to the party leadership’s high expectations.