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Northern Ireland has Catholic leading its government for the first time in history

Michelle O'Neill, newly elected as the first minister of Northern Ireland, speaks during a meeting of the legislative assembly in Belfast Feb. 3, 2024. O'Neill is Northern Ireland's first Catholic in the leadership post in history. In Northern Ireland, the title "First Minister" is equivalent to prime minister used elsewhere. (OSV News photo/Kelvin Boyes, Pool via Reuters)

By Michael Kelly
DUBLIN (OSV News) — Ireland’s most-senior churchman hailed an agreement that sees a Catholic take the top political job in Northern Ireland for the first time in its history as an “opportunity for a fresh start and a new beginning.”

Archbishop Eamon Martin of Armagh, president of the Irish bishops’ conference, made the comments as a power-sharing government was restored Feb. 3, after two years of deadlock. The executive branch is a key plank of a 1998 peace agreement that ended 30 years of bloody sectarian violence, but has struggled to take root with sporadic boycotts from political parties.

Michelle O’Neill of the Sinn Féin party is the first Catholic to head the region’s government. Her title is “First Minister,” which is equivalent to prime minister elsewhere. Addressing the region’s legislative assembly upon her election Feb. 3, O’Neill, 47, said, “The days of second-class citizenship are long gone, and today confirms that they will never come back.”

It comes 103 years after Northern Ireland was formed from the six northeastern counties on the island of Ireland, remaining part of Britain when the 26 southern counties won independence from British rule.

The founders of Northern Ireland drew the boundaries of the state along lines that they hoped would guarantee a permanent Protestant majority. Traditionally, Protestants have supported being part of Britain, whereas the Catholic community has traditionally supported unity with the rest of the island to form a single independent Ireland.

The first prime minister of Northern Ireland, James Craig, famously addressed the legislature describing it as a “Protestant parliament for a Protestant people,” and the Catholic minority complained of widespread discrimination in terms of jobs, housing and voting rights.

“This is an assembly for all: Catholic, Protestant and dissenter,” O’Neill told the legislature upon her election, adding that “despite our different outlooks and different views on the future constitutional position, the public rightly demand that we work and deliver together, and also that we build trust and confidence in our ability to collectively do that.”

Archbishop Martin told The Irish Catholic newspaper that he felt there was a “sense of relief” from citizens “who are so anxious that we can have appropriate representation to deal with the very pressing problems that we have in the North at this time.”

He referenced a recent general strike that saw tens of thousands of public sector workers, disgruntled by the lack of pay raises, withdraw their labor.

“Clearly the recent strikes brought to our attention the urgent need to deal with issues to do with pay within the civil service, within the health service, the huge waiting lists for people in our health services, the pressing issues within education, the massive problem we have at the moment within homelessness and housing in Northern Ireland, which often goes unmentioned,” the archbishop said.

The restoration also was welcomed by the representative body for the main Christian denominations in Ireland, the Church Leaders Group.

In a joint statement, the leaders of the Anglican, Catholic, Presbyterian and Methodist tradition, and the Irish Council of Churches said: “a re-established Executive and Assembly are first and important steps towards re-establishing hope and a vision for the future. However, for that to be achieved it will mean a commitment to focus on the common good.

“It will mean prioritizing the needs of the most vulnerable and marginalized of our fellow citizens. And it will mean at times taking the long overdue hard decisions necessary to transform our public services, many of which are close to breaking point,” the ecumenical group said.

Under the terms of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which brought an end to conflict that killed more than 3,500 people, the constitutional status of Northern Ireland can be changed only with the consent of the majority of its population.

For the first time in 2021, the census showed that more people in Northern Ireland identified as Catholic than Protestant intensifying calls for a referendum on reunification with the rest of Ireland.

Michael Kelly writes for OSV News from Dublin.

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