On Monday of this week, Michelle O’Neill stepped into Martin McGuinness’s shoes. Had she done that literally, she’d have found they were too big to be practical. And even though we’re not talking leather here and talking political, they’re still too big for her. But then again, can you think of any Sinn Féin politician who wouldn’t find the shoes of the former Deputy First Minister too big to fill?
Fortunately, Michelle doesn’t have to fill the shoes of her predecessor. As Deputy First Minister, she must find her own shoes, her own style, her own voice. Not an easy task, given the ignorance and contempt with which Martin McGuinness had to contend over ten years.
One thing that the new Sinn Féin leader should be spared is people leaping from the bushes and accusing her of having been responsible for the death of their loved one, in the middle of a conveniently arranged live TV interview. To accuse her, for example, of complicity in the death of Earl Mountbatten will be difficult, given that she was two at the time. And she’s unlikely to be asked by RTÉ when she last went to confession.
And the new leader has that kind of wholesome, attractive appearance which comes so naturally to Tyrone people (Shut up, Virginia),. Nor is it sexist to mention that, as John F Kennedy was fortunate to be viewed beside the brooding face of his political opponent Dick Nixon, Michelle will have a similar advantage, assuming the DUP don’t decide enough is enough and remove Arlene as their leader.
Will she make a good leader? Probably, although these things are hard to predict. She won’t have the weight and authority that Martin McGuinness brought to the post. Or not yet anyway. But we need to distinguish between how someone is when they take up a post and how they develop within a post. We talk about how some “grow into the job”. We all know how scary it can be to embark on a totally new position, and how encouraging it is when we discover that yes, we’re actually not bad at this. Once that confidence is established, it grows and feeds further confidence, and qualities hitherto hidden begin to flower.
The other thing that is crucial in any new job, particularly a political job, is the response of colleagues. If they tell you, directly or indirectly, that you are a bit of a busted flush, it’s tough to grow. Michelle O’Neill is fortunate in that she’ll head up a young(ish) team of talented Ministers or ex-Ministers – Mairtin O Muilleoir, Conor Murphy, John O’Dowd, Michelle Gildernew – who can give her the support in depth she’ll need. In fact, when you look at it, the new Sinn Féin in Stormont will be a force to be reckoned with.
And if you believe in lineage, the new Sinn Féin leader is impeccable. Her father was a republican prisoner and a Sinn Féin councillor, her grandmother was a civil rights activist and her uncle was national president of Noraid.
None of that background, however, will make Michelle O’Neill a successful Deputy First Minister or First Minister. That will be determined in large measure by how she is able to conduct herself in the face of unionist opponents. We can take it as a given that Sinn Féin will not resume partnership with a DUP party that sees reconciliation as a one-way march up a cul-de-sac. If equality and respect are the starting points for a new Executive, and if the note struck by Ian Paisley Jr in that TV interview is taken up by his party, then despite the concerns over Brexit and Trump and other matters, Michelle O’Neill may well preside over a transformative time, for Stormont and all of us.
Dia an obair, Michelle – God bless the work.