Michelle Gildernew (born 28 March 1970) is an Irish Sinn Féin politician and former Minister for Agriculture and Rural Development in the Northern Ireland Executive. She was the Member of Parliament for the constituency of Fermanagh and South Tyrone from 2001 to 2015, and was a Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly (MLA) for Fermanagh and South Tyrone between June 1998 and July 2012. She was re-elected to the Assembly in 2016.
Gildernew is Sinn Féin's health spokesperson and has been a member of the party's Ard Chomhairle (National Executive). In the 2007–11 Assembly, she served as Vice Chair of the Committee of Social Development and was a member of the Committee of the Centre as well as of other statutory and ad-hoc committees.
Education and background
Born in Dungannon, Gildernew attended St Catherine's College Armagh and later the University of Ulster, Coleraine. After graduating from university, she travelled extensively in Europe, the United States and Australia, where she worked for a year. She is married to Jimmy and is the mother of two boys, Emmet and Eunan, and one girl, Aoise.
Gildernew is one of ten siblings from an Irish republican family based at the "Gildernew farm complex" (as described on Ordnance Survey maps) in County Tyrone. During the 1960s, the family were leading figures in the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association and took part in a 1968 protest in Caledon, County Tyrone over housing discrimination.
On returning to Northern Ireland in 1996, Gildernew was the second-placed but unsuccessful candidate for Sinn Féin in the Northern Ireland Forum elections for Fermanagh and South Tyrone. The following year, she was appointed Sinn Féin representative to London and was part of the first Sinn Féin delegation to visit Downing Street. In the 1998 Assembly elections, she was elected MLA for Fermanagh and South Tyrone, retaining the seat in the 2003 and 2007 elections. Gildernew has campaigned on women's and mothers' rights.
Election to Westminster
In the 2001 UK general election, Gildernew was elected to Parliament as Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone, defeating the Ulster Unionist candidate James Cooper by 53 votes. Like all Sinn Féin MPs, she followed a policy of abstentionism and never took her seat in Westminster in the three times she was elected at the polls.
In the 2005 election, she was re-elected and increased her majority to 4,582 votes. In the 2010 election, the Democratic Unionists (DUP), Ulster Conservatives and Unionists and Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) all chose not to field candidates and she held her seat by 4 votes against independent Unionist Rodney Connor.
On Monday, 20 October 2014, Sinn Féin announced that Gildernew would be the party's candidate in the 2015 Westminster election. She lost the seat by 530 votes to Ulster Unionist Party candidate Tom Elliott. According to the Times Guide to the House of Commons, Gildernew was popular across the sectarian divide in one of Northern Ireland's most polarised constituencies.
Minister for Agriculture and Rural Development
During her time as Minister for Agriculture and Rural Development, Gildernew dealt with problems such as an outbreak of bluetongue disease. She also increased cross-border co-operation with the Republic of Ireland on farming issues.
2011 Irish presidential election
In September 2011, the Belfast Telegraph reported that Sinn Féin was considering Gildernew as their candidate for the that year's Irish presidential election. In the event, Martin McGuinness stood for Sinn Féin.
Support for Seán Quinn
In a July 2012 interview for the The Impartial Reporter, Gildernew defended embattled businessman Seán Quinn, saying that "[h]e has been treated disgracefully by the Irish Government. Had they not tried to strip him of all his assets, including his home, deny him the ability to function in business, and routinely try to humiliate him I believe he would have paid back every penny he owed to the Irish taxpayer". Quinn, the former head of the privately owned QUINN group (now Aventas), was declared bankrupt in January 2012. (With loans worth around €1.2 billion from the Anglo-Irish Bank, the QUINN group was exposed by its collapse and, on 30 March 2010, the High Court appointed joint provisional administrators to Quinn Insurance Ltd.)
Sinn Féin distanced themselves from Gildernew's comments made with Mary Lou McDonald that the Quinns had engaged in illegal business practices.
Gildernew has stated that in addition to spending time with family and friends, she enjoys cooking and a wide range of outdoor activities. She is a member of the Aghaloo Gaelic Athletics Association club in County Tyrone. She is a speaker of the Irish language.