Michelle O’Neill speaks of being prayed for while pregnant at school

Sinn Fein Vice President Michelle O’Neill has spoken about being prayed for when she was pregnant at school as a teenager.

At the climax of BBC NI’s Red Lines podcast, Ms O’Neill spoke about her pregnancy while a student at St Patrick’s Girls’ Academy in Dungannon, Co Tyrone.

Born in 1977, the Mid UIster MLA and now First Minister in Waiting became pregnant at 16 while studying for her GCSEs.

Praising her homeroom teacher at the time, she said they were “absolutely amazing to me and very understanding that you’re not like any other 16-year-old.

“You’re trying to do your GCSEs, maybe the night before you were up all night with a kid with sore ears,” she said.

“Unfortunately, my reality was that not everyone at school was that supportive.

“That was a Catholic grammar.

“A 16-year-old girl who was pregnant was frowned upon and they wouldn’t have been the friendliest in terms of their approach to supporting me at the time.”

She said it was an uncomfortable experience as some even prayed for her.

“It was actually when I just got pregnant. It was almost like I sinned and that’s why I need prayer, which obviously wasn’t the right approach,” she said.

“My parents made that clear to the school management at the time.”

While her daughter was born six days before her first GCSE exam, Ms O’Neill said she was determined not to give up her education – despite being hospitalized with preeclampsia for a time and homeschooled for a time.

“I remember showing up for sixth form after I had achieved my GCSEs and the amount required to get back into high school, and I remember the school making a huge fuss that I didn’t ask permission had to go back to school.” She said.

“It was my right to go back to school to complete my education.

“You caused a fuss and a fuss at a school assembly, which was quite an embarrassing experience.”

To date, she has never been invited to the school for student discussions, but she gladly accepts the offer if asked.

“I have my own lived experience, but the young people that are in the school have a right to have access to their politicians and for people to come in and talk to them,” she said.

She has returned to her old elementary school and said she has fond memories of the “fabulous teachers” there.

“Their kindness was always shining through, they were just really decent people and it was a very pleasant experience,” she said.

When asked how she got involved in politics, she said her father Brendan Doris was central as a Sinn Fein council member and former IRA prisoner.

“We would not have been a house that sat down at the kitchen table every day to talk about politics,” she said.

“But some of that was a little unavoidable because my father was a council member at Sinn Féin because he was a former inmate before.”

She also spoke of the “extraordinary circumstances” in Northern Ireland at the time, saying she was born into a society that “actively discriminates”.

“I remember getting my driving lessons and I remember being stopped by the local RUC,” she said.

“They actually gave me, I’m not sure if it was a fixed penalty or a fine at the time for not wearing a seat belt when I wore a seat belt.

“The words of those officers to me were, ‘Well, it will be your word against ours, and we know who is going to do better than that.’

“So this is the active discrimination that you lived in society at the time.

“It sounds pretty trivial in terms of what happened in the conflict, but that’s my experience, that something happened to me personally, regardless of anything else that was happening at the time.”

When asked if she could stand the violence of the IRA, she said: “I think there was no alternative at the time.

“Fortunately we now have an alternative to the conflict and that is the Good Friday Agreement.

“My entire adult life has been building the peace process.

“I wish the conditions that actually led to conflict had never been there.”

She added, “My narrative is very different from someone who may have lost a loved one to Republicans.”

Four special Red Lines programs, starring Ms O’Neill, Conservative MP Conor Burns, former MP and civil rights activist Bernadette McAliskey and former Attorney General Claire Sugden, will air on consecutive Fridays in August – beginning Friday 5 August – at 5 p.m :30pm BST on BBC Radio Ulster.

They will also be available as podcasts on BBC Sounds. Michelle O’Neill speaks of being prayed for while pregnant at school

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