New faces, old loyalties: Daughters of Northern Ireland's paramilitaries take power

Michelle O’Neill and Emma Little-Pengelly come from families deeply involved in the Troubles

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak embraces a new era in Northern Ireland meeting with Michelle O'Neill and Emma Little-Pengelly, the new leaders of the devolved administration.
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Northern Ireland has a new-look leadership pairing: all-female, with an Irish nationalist in the top job, and political careers forged in peacetime rather than the bloody years of conflict known as the Troubles.

But despite hopes of a fresh start, the rise of Michelle O’Neill and Emma Little-Pengelly – each a daughter of a paramilitary family – suggests old loyalties are alive and well in the new generation, experts said.

Ms O’Neill has just become Northern Ireland’s First Minister, a symbolic first for a Catholic republican. Under power-sharing rules, the unionist Ms Little-Pengelly has equal responsibilities as Deputy First Minister.

They have pledged to show unity after a long stalemate at Stormont, which left the political institutions created by the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement suspended for two years.

There is hope of consensus on bread-and-butter issues such as hospitals and housing. But on the question of Northern Ireland’s future in the UK or Ireland, Ms Little-Pengelly said, the two women “will never agree”.

Family ties

Ms O’Neill, 47, is leader in the north of the all-Ireland nationalist party Sinn Fein and comes from a “staunchly republican background”, said Jon Tonge, a professor of British and Irish politics at the University of Liverpool.

Her father, Brendan Doris, was an IRA prisoner at the height of the Troubles and later a Sinn Fein councillor in County Tyrone, where the young Michelle went to Catholic grammar school. A cousin, Tony Doris, was shot dead in a British special forces ambush of paramilitary members in 1991.

Paul Doris, an uncle, worked for a group called Noraid that raised money for the IRA in the United States, long home to significant Irish republican sympathies. Ms O'Neill plans to visit Washington for St Patrick's Day despite Sinn Fein's pro-Palestinian stance putting it at odds with the US position on the Israel-Gaza war.

Upon Brendan Doris’s death in 2006, former IRA member Martin McGuinness lauded the Doris family for playing “a significant role in the republican struggle for many years”.

Ms O’Neill has crossed the lines of an older generation by being willing to refer to “Northern Ireland” – nationalists tend to say “the north of Ireland” – and striking up a personal chemistry with Britain’s King Charles III.

“She’s post-conflict generation in the sense that her political career has developed in the aftermath of the Good Friday Agreement,” Prof Tonge said.

But “she’s never going to disavow IRA violence. That would mean tearing up history".

“There is this walking a tightrope where she goes into Stormont one day and says how sorry she is for everything, and then the following week will go to an IRA commemoration and laud the contribution of IRA volunteers.

The election of these two women with those backgrounds is an indication of the continuities
Liam Kennedy, historian

“That will always offend unionists, certainly an older generation of unionists who suffered during the conflict. But I don’t think she glorifies it either.”

Ms Little-Pengelly, 44, had her father Noel Little watching from the public gallery as she took up her role on behalf of the Democratic Unionist Party last Saturday.

Mr Little was one of the “Paris Three” arrested in France in 1989 for his role in a loyalist arms plot. The Royal Ulster Constabulary searched the family home in Markethill as part of the French investigation.

He denied buying arms for loyalist group Ulster Resistance, but the three received fines and suspended sentences. Writing in 2015, Ms Little-Pengelly said her father “made those choices in his life but I love him as a daughter”. The same year, it was revealed he was working as a steward at a Belfast cathedral.

The two women now leading Northern Ireland are “almost mirror images of each other”, said Liam Kennedy, a Queen’s University Belfast historian and campaigner on paramilitary abuses during the Troubles.

More than 3,000 people died during the Troubles as rival paramilitaries carried out bombings, shootings and vigilante attacks. The British Army was deployed as a peacekeeper but some of its troops were implicated in killings.

The violence mostly ended after the Good Friday Agreement, with the IRA formally ending its armed campaign in 2005, but dissident groups remain. The threat level from Northern Ireland-related terrorism was raised last year.

“In a way, the election of these two women with those backgrounds is an indication of the continuities” in Northern Ireland’s politics, Prof Kennedy said.

“The more extreme elements in both communities have come to dominate and it looks likely that this will continue to be the case.”

In 1998, moderate parties led by David Trimble and John Hume were the faces of unionism and nationalism respectively. The two men won a Nobel Prize for their readiness to make peace.

However, Trimble and Hume’s moderates were subsequently eclipsed by the more hardline voices on each side: the DUP led by Ian Paisley, and Sinn Fein under Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness.

Paisley and McGuinness became an unlikely leadership pair known as the “Chuckle Brothers”, despite being sworn enemies during the Troubles. Both have since died, but their parties remain the dominant forces at Stormont.

Far from repelling voters, having a paramilitary hinterland “actually strengthens your position” as a candidate on each side of the political divide, Prof Kennedy said.

At the same time Belfast was the focus of a 25-year set of programmes designed to “build a sustainable peace and promote reconciliation”. The billion euro EU Special Support Fund for Peace and Reconciliation was a flagship but also just one of many funds. These drew on the involvement of hardline communities and rewarded long-term processes that required significant local political leadership. One report on the post-conflict programmes was titled: From enemies to partners?

Women to the fore

Ms O’Neill was appointed to her party role in 2018 and “that background helps her in terms of nailing down the Sinn Fein vote”. he said.

“It does alienate smallish numbers of Catholic nationalists but not to the extent that someone on the outside might imagine. In some respects we’re very forgiving of certain aspects of the past.

“On the unionist side, I think it was a masterstroke of the DUP to put in Emma Little-Pengelly, because it reassures more extreme DUP voters that they’re not being sold down the river.”

Plea for unity

The two women made a point of looking to the future when they took the floor at Stormont.

“The past cannot be changed or undone, but what we can do – what we all can do – is build a better future,” Ms O’Neill said as she promised to be a first minister for all.

Ms Little-Pengelly urged a focus on shared needs as she told Stormont the “wee mummy waiting for her cancer diagnosis is not defined as republican or unionist”.

Prof Tonge, who watched the proceedings in Belfast, said they reminded him of “a wedding where you’re not sure the couple are entirely suited, but you wish them well”.

“Even though they can park their rival constitutional ambitions, you still think sometimes these are two parties looking for a row rather than two parties that are looking to govern together,” he said.

Under the Good Friday Agreement, the two leading posts are earmarked for unionists and nationalists. This is meant to ensure cross-community policies but also entrenches the old divides.

Stormont has been suspended several times, most recently after the DUP walked out over post-Brexit trade rules it fears are dividing Northern Ireland from the British mainland.

The goal for Sinn Fein is to build support for Irish unity and hasten the day when a vote is called on Northern Ireland’s future. Its historic win in a 2022 assembly election paved the way for Ms O’Neill’s appointment.

While views on the union remain entrenched, experts believe a looming election in the republic does at least give Sinn Fein an incentive to govern well as it aims for power in Dublin as well as Belfast.

“It’s vital for Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland to project an image of responsibility, of reaching out, because that will go down well with the electorate in the Republic of Ireland,” Prof Kennedy said.

“It stands a very good chance of Mary Lou McDonald becoming the Irish Taoiseach, a very good chance of forming the next government. That really would be a seismic change in the politics of the island.”

Updated: February 09, 2024, 6:00 PM