Water charges: Michelle O’Neill rules out introducing new fees

  • By Enda McClafferty & Eimear Flanagan
  • BBC News NI

Video caption,

‘I’m saying very clearly no to water charges’ – Michelle O’Neill

First Minister Michelle O’Neill has ruled out introducing water charges during her time in office

Ms O’Neill also insisted she would be a “first minister for all” and would attend events right across community an political divides.

That includes going to Windsor Park to watch a Northern Ireland football game.

In her first in-depth interview with BBC News NI since she took up her role as first minister of Northern Ireland, Ms O’Neill was asked about Stormont’s finances.

In particular she was asked about whether Stormont parties had pledged to introduce measures to raise more money in Northern Ireland.

‘You can’t burden people’

In December, the government offered a £3.3bn funding package to restore devolution at Stormont, which is due to be released soon.

The major condition attached to the package was a willingness to raise more funds locally through taxes or charges.

But Sinn Féin deputy leader Ms O’Neill denied she had “signed up to revenue raising” and added that she did not believe other parties had agreed either.

“I’m saying, very clearly, no to water charges,” she BBC News NI.

“I’m saying very clearly that you can’t burden people who are living through a cost of living crisis with additional household bills whilst their public services are declining.”

A spokesperson for the Northern Ireland Office said: “As with any other administration in the UK, the executive need to make choices to support stability, prosperity, and sustainable public services.”

The Treasury is due to write to Finance Minister Caoimhe Archibald to set out funding details and the associated conditions in due course, the spokesperson added.

Ms O’Neill is the first nationalist to hold the post of first minister of Northern Ireland since the office was created under the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

She has said she will use her position to “reach out the hand of friendship” to people from unionist backgrounds and people from elsewhere who have made Northern Ireland their home.

Image caption,

Deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly (left) and First Minister Michelle O’Neill jointly attended a PSNI graduation last week

In the past, as senior member of an Irish republican political party, Ms O’Neill has attended controversial IRA commemorations.

Asked if she planned to attend such commemorations while holding the post of first minister, she said she would be “true to the office” she now holds but added that people were entitled to “remember their dead”.

“I think the first thing, whenever we’re talking about the past or people who have lost loved ones, we need to be very, very mindful of the fact that there are grieving families,” she said.

“What’s most important in terms of the Good Friday Agreement itself is that we all must be respectful of people’s right to remember their dead – that’s the number one starting point here.”

Pressed if that meant yes or no to attending IRA commemorations, Ms O’Neill replied: “I’m very comfortable and very authentic in saying that I am a republican.”

But she added: “We need to be mature enough to understand that we all come from different backgrounds and people have a right to remember their dead.”

“I will be very conscious of the office that I hold and any decision that I take will be based on the fact that I will be true and respectful of the office of first minster.”

Congratulations from the King

Ms O’Neill said she had “no doubt” that in her new role she would attend a football match at Windsor Park, the home of the Northern Ireland international team.

In 2023 she tweeted her support for Northern Ireland football manager Michael O’Neill and his men’s team ahead of a crucial match.

The first minister said sport “can unite a lot of people in our society” and indicated she would accept an invitation to Windsor Park if she received one.

Ms O’Neill also revealed she received a handwritten letter of congratulations from the King after taking up her new role.

Who is Michelle O’Neill?

Image source, Liam McBurney/PA Media

Born Michelle Doris on 10 January 1977, she was raised in the rural village of Clonoe in County Tyrone and hails from a family of prominent Irish republicans.

In 1998, after the Good Friday Agreement, the peace deal that helped bring an end to 30 years of violence in Northern Ireland, was signed she began working for Sinn Féin.

When her father stepped down from Dungannon and South Tyrone Borough Council ahead of the 2005 election, she won the seat he vacated in the Torrent electoral area.

Her career in the assembly began in 2007, when she joined Martin McGuinness and Francie Molloy as a Mid Ulster assembly member.

Sinn Féin nominated Ms O’Neill for first minister as the party won the most seats in the assembly election in May 2022.

It marked a symbolic moment in Northern Ireland’s history, with a nationalist holding Stormont’s top job for the first time.

Last week, Ms O’Neill attended a Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) graduation ceremony at Garnerville in east Belfast, marking the first time the party attended such an event.

PSNI Chief Constable Jon Boutcher called Ms O’Neill’s attendance “a hugely positive gesture”.


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