In a historic moment for Irish nationalism, the chambers of Stormont resonated with blue, red, and gold. The symbolic day marked the restoration of devolved government, signifying the end of what many considered a unionist state. Michelle O’Neill became Northern Ireland’s first nationalist first minister.

O’Neill’s nomination carries significant weight for Republicans. Despite the lack of explicit mention of constitutional change in her inaugural address, O’Neill’s connection to the IRA and her reference to Northern Ireland as the north of Ireland underlines a potential countdown to unification.

In her speech, O’Neill avoided triumphalism and focused on reconciliation and everyday issues. She pledged to serve everyone equally, emphasising her role as a first minister for all and committing to making power-sharing effective.

Acknowledging the historical significance of her appointment, O’Neill referred to it as a new dawn for Catholics who had faced discrimination.

Stormont’s architectural symbolism, with its six floors, pillars, and granite base, contrasts starkly with Sinn Féin’s broader aspirations of an all-Ireland union. O’Neill leads the executive alongside Emma Little-Pengelly, a DUP member nominated as deputy first minister. Despite ideological differences, both leaders are willing to work together on shared issues such as improving public services.

Unionist assembly members exhibit mixed reactions to O’Neill’s appointment. Some congratulate, while others display funereal expressions, highlighting the psychological blow stemming from the end of a state designed in 1921 to ensure a permanent unionist majority. Demographic and political changes and the 2022 assembly election led Sinn Féin to surpass the DUP as the largest party.

The DUP boycott and post-Brexit trading arrangements halted Stormont until recent UK government adjustments to the Windsor framework. Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris expresses optimism for Stormont’s stability post-1998 Good Friday Agreement, despite criticisms from figures like Jim Allister, who accuses the DUP of selling out.

Contrary to rumours, loyalist protests at Stormont do not materialise. Instead, workers protest against crumbling public services and delayed pay rises. The assembly’s revival unlocks a £3.3bn financial package from London to avert planned strikes, but concerns linger regarding the fiscal crisis.

Sinn Féin, DUP, Alliance, and UUP share ministerial positions through the D’Hondt mechanism. Notable appointments include Conor Murphy, John O’Dowd, Caoimhe Archibald from Sinn Féin, Paul Givan and Gordon Lyons from the DUP, Robin Swann from UUP, and Andrew Muir from Alliance. Edwin Poots, a former DUP leader, became the assembly speaker.