The all-female team leading the new Northern Ireland powersharing Executive will inspire young women that they can achieve anything, Michelle O’Neill has said.
She told the PA news agency of her pride that her family were at Stormont to see the historic moment on Saturday when she was appointed as Northern Ireland’s first ever nationalist First Minister.
She also spoke of her hope that she will be able to forge a close working relationship with the DUP’s deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly, pointing out they have many shared priorities.
PA was granted behind the scenes access to Ms O’Neill’s first day in office at Stormont on Saturday, revealing a whirlwind of media interviews, meetings and time spent with family as she familiarised herself with her new First Minister’s office.
Ms O’Neill spent Friday evening working on the speech she would deliver on Saturday, while also trying to keep an eye on the progress of Ireland’s opening Six Nations clash – which was a record away victory in France.
She arrived at Parliament Buildings at around 11.30am on Saturday and spent some time with her daughter Saoirse, son Ryan and her grandchild in the First Minister’s office.
She was still putting the finishing touches to her speech when party leader Mary Lou McDonald arrived.
Next there was a meeting of party MLAs before Ms O’Neill walked alone, applauded by supporters, down the stairs into Stormont’s Great Hall, past a portrait of her political mentor Martin McGuinness and into the debating chamber, where the historic meeting of the restored Assembly began after two years of political deadlock.
Watching her from the public gallery was her son and daughter, Ms McDonald, former Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams and Mr McGuinness’s son Fiachra.
After she and Ms Little-Pengelly delivered their speeches upon assuming office, there was a short adjournment during which Ms O’Neill returned to her office to deal with official business and pose for photographs.
She then returned to the debating chamber while the rest of the Stormont ministerial posts were filled.
At the end of the sitting she exchanged embraces with party colleagues Linda Dillon and Caoimhe Archibald, and posed for selfies in the corridor with councillors from her native Tyrone.
The new First Minister then went again to her office for a series of interviews, interrupted briefly when she had official portraits taken with Ms Little-Pengelly.
Ms O’Neill said it had been an exhausting day, but a fulfilling one.
She said: “I feel good, there is no doubt about it.
“I can feel that sense of pride from wider society.
“I think people, whenever I stood for election I said I would be a first minister for all and I am so glad that people actually embraced that and I wanted to reflect that in what I said.
“A big job ahead, no doubt, but certainly I am up for it.
“I have the energy to do it because, as we know, the politics here can be challenging, but I do think that this has been such a historic day for so many reasons, but not least the fact that my parents and grandparents never thought a day like today would come.
“This place (Stormont) was designed in such a way that it wasn’t to happen, but here we are.
“It is progress, it is change.
“For me, as someone who says I’m a Good Friday Agreement generation person, I think the fact that we are here, 26 years past the Good Friday Agreement, this speaks volumes to the change that is happening.
“Big work ahead of us but I’m delighted that we’ve finally got to this point two years after the election and we now have an Executive up and running.”
Ms O’Neill reflected on the importance of family, with her grown-up children at Stormont and her mother watching the proceedings at home.
She said: “Of course it’s important. We always care what our family thinks, they will be the first to tell you the truth too.
“It was great to have everybody here because it is such a historic moment.
“It is important in junctures like this that we actually mark them. I am glad that everybody was here.
“But I hope that the people at home, looking on, heard what I wanted to communicate, that I will work for all, I am absolutely determined to work in partnership with others and I think that’s what the public want to see.
“They want to see politics working, they want us to be dealing with things like childcare, they want us to be reforming our health service and making sure they can get access to the health service when they need it.
“There is so much ahead of us to do, but we are up for it.”
The First Minister said she hopes her maiden speech reached out to young people right across Northern Ireland.
She said: “I think this is historic for the political reasons we set out, but also if you look the Executive office is now two women at the helm, we also have two junior ministers who are also female (Aisling Reilly and Pam Cameron).
“I think that speaks volumes to young women out there that they can achieve anything they set their minds to.
“I certainly would encourage anyone out there, all young people out there, to believe, whatever you want to do, you can do with proper support.
“I wanted to talk directly to those young people, that I want to have their backs, I want to hear what’s important to them.
“They can change the world, I genuinely believe that.
“If I can do anything to leave a legacy, it would be just to give them that gift of a better society where hope and opportunity is something that they feel every day.”
Turning to her relationship with Ms Little-Pengelly, Ms O’Neill said: “I think we have many shared priorities, you heard some of that overlapping in the speeches.
“Particularly around issues like childcare, that is one of the biggest issues facing families right now, affordable childcare being an option to them. I think this is something together, that this Executive wants to do.
“I was very happy to work with whoever they had put forward.
“But yes, I’ve known Emma for quite some time, obviously she has been about the institutions, so I think we will get on just fine, and I think that we have work to do and we just have to get down to brass tacks now and actually get it done.
“I would always argue two women is going to be better.”