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Catholic to lead Northern Ireland’s government for first time in history

February 5, 2024 Catholic News Agency 1
Newly appointed Northern Ireland First Minister Michelle O’Neill made history Feb. 3, 2024, by becoming the first Catholic and first Irish nationalist to lead the country’s government in its 103 years of existence. / Credit: Photo courtesy of Sinn Féin/Wikimedia, CC BY 2.0 DEED

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Feb 5, 2024 / 14:40 pm (CNA).

Newly appointed Northern Ireland First Minister Michelle O’Neill made history over the weekend by becoming the first Catholic and first Irish nationalist to lead the country’s government in its 103 years of existence.

“As an Irish republican, I pledge cooperation and genuine honest effort with those colleagues who are British, of a unionist tradition, and who cherish the Union,” O’Neill, who is a member of the Irish nationalist and democratic socialist party Sinn Féin, said in an address to the Northern Ireland Assembly on Saturday after assuming the position of first minister.

“This is an assembly for all — Catholic, Protestant, and dissenter,” O’Neill added. “Despite our different outlooks and views on the future constitutional position, the public rightly demands that we cooperate, deliver, and work together. We must build trust and confidence in our ability to do that.”

Sinn Féin, which has historical ties to the Provisional Irish Republican Army, officially supports the reunification of the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, which were separated in 1921 through a peace treaty between Irish revolutionaries and the United Kingdom. The treaty ended the 1919–1921 Irish war for independence from the United Kingdom.

Northern Ireland is currently part of the United Kingdom. Yet, per the Good Friday Agreement, which was signed in 1998, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland can reunite as one country if the majority of both countries vote in favor of such a change via referenda. 

The Good Friday Agreement, which received overwhelming support in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, brought an end to “The Troubles,” which was a 30-year violent conflict between Irish republicans and Ulster loyalists. The violence stemmed from disputes over the status of Northern Ireland and allegations of discrimination against Catholics through political gerrymandering, de facto segregation from housing policies, and workplace hiring practices that prevented Catholics from working in major industries that were mostly controlled by Protestants.

Despite this historical division, O’Neill’s address mostly focused on domestic problems rather than Irish reunification. 

“There are many nettles to grasp,” O’Neill said. “The rising cost of living has been a heavy burden on many households and businesses. There are people living from hand to mouth, and they need our support. There are too many patients waiting for treatment and support. Our teachers, nurses, and all public sector workers are being forced onto the picket line. This demands urgent action.”

However, in an interview with Sky News that aired the following day, O’Neill suggested that a vote to reunite the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland could occur within the next decade. 

“I believe that we are in the decade of opportunity and I believe … that we can do two things at once,” O’Neill said. “We can have power-sharing, we can make it stable, we can work together every day in terms of public services and while we also pursue our equally legitimate aspirations.”

United Kingdom Prime Minister Rishi Sunak responded to those comments in an interview with Sky News, encouraging O’Neill to focus on local issues instead of reunification, citing a £3.3 billion funding deal for Northern Ireland. 

“Our new deal gives them more funding and more powers than they’ve ever had so they can deliver for families and businesses across Northern Ireland,” Sunak said. “And that’s what everyone’s priority is now. It’s not constitutional change. It’s delivering on the day-to-day things that matter to people.”

Sinn Féin won the plurality of Northern Ireland Assembly seats in May 2022 for the first time in the country’s history. However, a failure to reach a power-sharing agreement delayed the appointment of a first minister for nearly two years. 

Despite Sinn Féin’s historical association with Irish Catholics, O’Neill and the party are at odds with Church teaching on a number of issues. For example, Sinn Féin supported the increase in access to abortion and the party supports children having access to transgender drugs.


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UK government funds abortion in Northern Ireland as pro-life groups object

October 25, 2022 Catholic News Agency 0
Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Chris Heaton-Harris arrives at St Anne’s Cathedral for the Service of Reflection in Belfast on Sept. 13, 2022. / Shutterstock

Denver, Colo., Oct 25, 2022 / 20:00 pm (CNA).

The U.K. government has announced funding to expand abortion in Northern Ireland, though the move drew strong objections from pro-life groups.

“The Department of Health is already straining under the current financial pressure, with thousands of people on waiting lists for genuine medical treatment,” Bernadette Smyth, director of the Belfast-based pro-life group Precious Life, said Tuesday. “Yet taxpayer’s money will be used for the killing of our unborn babies in Northern Ireland.”

“Every child deserves to be protected from the barbaric practice of abortion and every woman in an unexpected pregnancy deserves genuine life-affirming health care and support. Women in Northern Ireland deserve better than abortion,” Smyth continued. “Precious Life will continue campaigning to protect mothers in Northern Ireland, and restore personhood and full legal protection for their unborn babies.”

Chris Heaton-Harris, secretary of state for Northern Ireland, said Monday that the U.K. government will “ensure the commissioning of abortion services.”

“21 October marked the three-year anniversary of the decriminalization of abortion in Northern Ireland,” he said. “It is not right that three years on, women and girls in Northern Ireland are still unable to access the full range of health care to which they are lawfully entitled.”

Heaton-Harris said the U.K. government will ensure appropriate funding “to enable health care professionals to take the necessary steps to ensure that essential training and recruitment of staff can progress, and services can be implemented.”

The lack of abortion providers in Northern Ireland means women who are 10 weeks pregnant or more who seek abortions are still told to travel to England, Politico reported.

Right to Life UK said that once abortion services are fully commissioned in Northern Ireland, abortion will be available “up to the point of birth” for all disabilities including cleft palate, club foot, and Down syndrome. Sex-targeted abortion will be available through 12 weeks and abortion-on-demand will be available, de facto, through 24 weeks of pregnancy.

Though the Northern Ireland executive operating out of Stormont normally oversees the health department, at present there is no government due to the Democratic Unionist Party’s refusal to allow the filling of senior government posts after the victory of the Sinn Féin party in the May elections. This situation gives significant authority to the Northern Ireland secretary of state, who is a member of the U.K. prime minister’s cabinet.

The U.K. Parliament imposed legal abortion on Northern Ireland during a previous period of political deadlock. Since then, more than 4,136 abortions have been performed.

Heaton-Harris said the 2019 law decriminalizing abortion in Northern Ireland requires him to fully implement the recommendations of the 2018 report on the U.K. produced by the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women. These recommendations include funding for abortion.

Pro-life groups criticized both the funding of abortion and the U.K. government’s action without local approval.

“Chris Heaton-Harris is not only ignoring the right to life of unborn babies here but also blatantly ignoring the principles of democracy and devolution by using his governmental powers to override the Stormont Assembly,” Smyth objected.

Sinn Féin and the Social Democratic and Labor Party (SDLP), the two largest Irish nationalist parties in Northern Ireland, had called for the commissioning of abortion last year. The traditionally Catholic-backed nationalist parties now tend to back abortion, while the traditionally Protestant Democratic Unionist Party has continued to strongly oppose abortion.

Smyth criticized SDLP and Sinn Fein legislators and others, saying they must be “called out for their deafening silence on this interference from Westminster — yet they are the first to claim democracy and devolution must be respected in other devolved matters in Northern Ireland.”

Catherine Robinson, a spokesperson for Right to Life UK, noted that three years ago Northern Ireland had “almost full legal protection” for unborn children.

“Since then, Westminster has forced abortion on the region against the will of the electorate and their representatives,” she said Oct. 24. “Now, the secretary of state for Northern Ireland has essentially been made a de facto unelected and unaccountable minister in Northern Ireland, who will commission abortion as he sees fit. A just society would be introducing greater protections for unborn children against abortion, not lessening the few that remain.”

Heaton-Harris, a Conservative Party member, was appointed Northern Ireland minister last month by U.K. Prime Minister Liz Truss, who has since resigned. Heaton-Harris on Tuesday was reappointed by the newly elected prime minister, Rishi Sunak.

In his Monday statement, Heaton-Harris said that funding abortion services is ultimately the responsibility of the Northern Ireland executive.