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First Catholic at the head of government in Northern Ireland

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First Catholic at the head of government in Northern Ireland

As of: February 3, 2024 5:21 p.m

After two years of political deadlock, the parties in Northern Ireland have agreed on a government. With Michelle O’Neill from Sinn Fein, it is headed by a Catholic for the first time.

For the first time in its history, Northern Ireland will be led by a Catholic politician who would unite the nation with EU member Ireland. Michelle O’Neill from the Sinn Fein party was chosen as the new head of government in the regional parliament in Belfast. She is the first Catholic to hold the position.

Two years without a government

This also ends the political crisis in Northern Ireland – exactly two years to the day after the collapse of the previous government. O’Neill’s Catholic-republican party Sinn Fein received the most votes for the first time in the most recent regional elections in May 2022 – but cannot freely choose its government partner.

Northern Ireland’s finely balanced political system requires that the sectarian camps work together to form a unity government. This is set out in the Good Friday Agreement, which ended the decades-long civil war in 1998 between Catholics seeking unification with Ireland and Protestants.

DUP made far-reaching demands

The largest Protestant party, the DUP, which advocates political union with Great Britain, is now entitled to the office of equal deputy head of government. Emma Little-Pengelly, a confidante of party leader Jeffrey Donaldson, was nominated for this.

Border question as a crucial point of contention

The DUP had refused to cooperate for two years. She called for an end to all customs controls between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom, which the central government in London and the EU had agreed on after Brexit. Just a few days ago the DUP agreed to a new document.

Internal British controls should be reduced to a minimum – but experts call the agreement with the British central government symbolic. The Belfast Telegraph newspaper commented that the DUP had missed its target and was selling its defeat as a victory.

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Gabi Biesinger, ARD London, tagesschau, February 3rd, 2024 6:43 p.m

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