Michelle O’Neill ‘truly sorry’ for attending Bobby Storey funeral at height of Covid-19 pandemic

Sinn Féin says party leader Mary Lou McDonald shares regret expressed by First Minister for attending 2020 funeral

First Minister Michelle O'Neill arrives at the Covid Inquiry in Belfast on Tuesday morning. Photograph: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

Northern Ireland’s First Minister Michelle O’Neill has told a public inquiry she is “truly sorry” for attending the funeral of a senior republican at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic restrictions.

The Sinn Féin deputy leader apologised for the “harm” she had caused after she and some of her ministerial colleagues were present at the funeral of senior republican Bobby Storey in June 2020.

Following Tuesday’s Covid inquiry hearing, Sinn Féin said Ms McDonald and other TDs shared Ms O’Neill’s regret at having attended the funeral. Though the party repeatedly defended its attendance at the time, a spokesperson confirmed the change of position on Tuesday after Ms O’Neill made her statement to the Covid inquiry in Belfast.

Giving evidence at the final sitting of the UK-wide public inquiry, Ms O’Neill became emotional after she was asked by the inquiry chair Baroness Heather Hallett if she realised “at the time” that her attendance would cause anger.

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“I didn’t but I ought to have,” said Ms O’Neill, who served as Stormont’s deputy first minister between 2020 and 2022.

A crowd listens to former Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams speak during the funeral of Bobby Storey. Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA

Ms O’Neill faced calls to resign from unionist politicians after the police decided not to prosecute her for alleged breaches of Covid restrictions following the funeral in west Belfast during the first wave of the pandemic, when more than 1,000 people lined the route.

The then first minister, Arlene Foster, called on her to step aside while police investigated her actions.

Addressing the inquiry, Ms O’Neill said she accepted “wholeheartedly” the damage caused to relations with Executive colleagues.

“I also accept wholeheartedly that I damaged the public health messaging and I had work to do to regain that.”

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She acknowledged she had angered bereaved families during a period of stringent lockdown restrictions.

“No family should ever have to go through what these families have went through. I also know equally that my actions compounded the hurt and that horrible experience that those families have been through,” she said.

“I know that my actions also angered the families and for that, I’m truly sorry. I am sorry for going and I’m sorry for the harm that’s been caused after that. And I want to make that statement very clear on the record again today.”

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald, former leader Gerry Adams, and the deputy first minister Michelle O’Neill at the funeral of Bobby Storey. Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA Wire

Ms O’Neill was among those interviewed by police. Sinn Féin figures who attended the funeral included party leader Mary Lou McDonald, former leader Gerry Adams, the then Stormont finance minister Conor Murphy and Donegal TD Pearse Doherty.

A file was sent to the Public Prosecution Service, which decided not to prosecute on the grounds there was “no reasonable prospect of conviction in respect of any of the reported individuals”.

Asked if Ms McDonald and other Sinn Féin TDs shared Ms O’Neill’s “regret and apology over the Bobby Storey funeral”, a spokesperson replied on Tuesday: “Yes, they do.”

In July 2020, Ms O’Neill acknowledged some grieving families had been hurt by her actions, but said: “I will never apologise for attending the funeral of my friend”.

In April 2021, she offered a “heartfelt and unreserved apology” to families bereaved in the pandemic for her actions.

Responding to minutes read aloud in the inquiry in which she defended her attendance at the time, the First Minister said she now realised she was wrong.

“I think what I’ve said there in terms of not diluting the public message that was wrong – because clearly I did,” she said.

An exchange of messages between Ms Foster and Ms O’Neill was also shown to the inquiry, in which Ms Foster accused her of publicly undermining the then health minister Robin Swann.

The messages were exchanged on March 21st, 2020, when Ms Foster said the deputy first minister was “playing politics when things are much too serious”.

Ms O’Neill said the messages did not reflect any difference in how governments around the world were trying to “manage and get through it”.

Counsel to the inquiry, Clair Dobbin KC, put it to Ms O’Neill that she and other executive colleagues had played politics, to which replied: “I absolutely refute that.”

Seanín Graham

Seanín Graham

Seanín Graham is Northern Correspondent of The Irish Times

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy is Political Editor of The Irish Times