Arlene Foster says Michelle O’Neill’s apology ‘falls short’ and credibility of Executive damaged

Sinn Féin MLA says sorry for hurt but insists she didn’t break coronavirus regulations at funeral

First Minister Arlene Foster during a press conference at the grounds close to Colebrooke Parish Church in Co Fermanagh. Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA Wire

First Minister Arlene Foster during a press conference at the grounds close to Colebrooke Parish Church in Co Fermanagh. Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA Wire

 

Michelle O’Neill’s apology for hurt caused to grieving families by her presence at the funeral of Belfast republican Bobby Storey on Tuesday “falls short”, the North’s first minster has said.

Arlene Foster said while it was “important” this hurt had been recognised, “regrettably the role of the deputy first minister in causing that hurt has not been acknowledged”.

“One of the things that struck me very strongly when I listened to Michelle give her statement today is there was no recognition of any wrongdoing, no recognition that there was a problem, no recognition that the credibility of the Executive has been damaged, and I think that’s wrong,” Ms Foster said.

Speaking at a press conference on Friday following a meeting of the Northern Executive’s five party leaders, Ms O’Neill said she was “very conscious of the fact that over the course of the past number of days that those [grieving] families would have felt even more hurt, and I’m sorry for that.”

But she said she was “confident I can stand over the fact that I worked within the guidelines,that I worked within the regulations in terms of attending a reqiuem Mass which was allowed, and also to walk in a funeral cortege of up to 30 people”.

Earlier, Ms Foster and Ms O’Neill took part in a meeting of the leaders of the five parties in Northern Executive, where it is understood the other parties expressed their concerns in a “robust” manner.

Afterwards the SDLP leader, Colum Eastwood, described Ms O’Neill’s statement as a “half apology” and said if she could not show contrition or accept wrongdoing she should stand aside pending an investigation.

The Ulster Unionist leader, Steve Aiken, also said Ms O’Neill should either step aside or resign.

(left to right) Mary Lou McDonald, Gerry Adams, and Michelle O’Neill at the funeral of Bobby Storey on Tuesday. Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA
(left to right) Mary Lou McDonald, Gerry Adams, and Michelle O’Neill at the funeral of Bobby Storey on Tuesday. Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA

Ms Foster said it remained her position that Ms O’Neill should consider stepping aside while the police investigation and an internal Assembly inquiry took place.

At Friday’s meeting, Ms Foster said, the four other party leaders “were very clear that the deputy first minister had broken the guidance and the regulations. She maintains that she has not so; there is that fundamental difference.

“The investigations will look at all of that, but I think it is my clear view that she has broken the regulations.”

Ms Foster said discussions would take place over the weekend between the leaders of the other four parties with a view to finding a way forward.

“It is important that we try and rebuild the trust that has been lost”, she said, adding that it was important that the public continued to abide by social distancing guidelines and the coronavirus regulations.

The Sinn Féin leader, Mary Lou McDonald, also apologised, telling Newstalk: “I do understand that looking at the images of very busy pathways in west Belfast, and taking all of that in obviously has jolted, and has caused some hurt among some of those families, and for that I am very sorry.”

Assistant Chief Constable Alan Todd rejected comments by Ms McDonald on RTÉ radio that the police had played a role in the planning of the funeral. He said on Friday that the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) “were not involved in the planning of this funeral and did not approve any plan for the funeral”.

He said that, “in line with long established good practice and in common with many other circumstances”, the police had “engaged with the organisers on the basis of no promises and no surprises, in order that they understood their obligations and to seek assurances in respect of public safety”.

All available evidence would be reviewed, he said. “Where there is any potential breach of the health protection regulations or breach of any other statute identified in respect of any individual, the matter will be referred to the PPS [Public Prosecution Service] for their consideration.”

Ms O’Neill and Ms McDonald were among of a large number of senior Sinn Féin figures who attended the funeral of the former IRA member in west Belfast on Tuesday.

About 100 people, rather than the 10 permitted by the regulations in force at the time, attended the funeral Mass inside St Agnes’ Church, though it is understood social distancing arrangements were put in place and mourners were spread three to a pew.

Several thousand people gathered along the route of the cortège and hundreds of republicans, each standing at a distance from each other, formed a guard of honour. About 30 mourners walked behind the cortege, in apparent accordance with the regulations permitting a maximum of 30 people to meet outdoors.

Questions have also been raised over social distancing at the ceremony which took place at the republican plot at Milltown Cemetery following the funeral, and whether or not it breached the regulations regarding unnecessary journeys.

Mr Storey was not buried in the cemetery, and was instead taken to Roselawn Crematorium for cremation.

Investigation

The Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) has called for an independent investigation into events at the crematorium, which is run by Belfast City Council. There have been claims that a number of council staff were sent home and Sinn Féin marshals were instead on the site, and that there were no further burials or cremations on Tuesday afternoon to accommodate Mr Storey’s funeral.

In a lengthy statement on Friday, the council said all cremations on Tuesday complied with the official guidance.

Stewards “appointed by the family” were present to ensure “only those permitted by the family” were present, which the council said was “no different to what would normally be the case in a high profile cremation or one that would potentially attract high numbers of people or media”.

The council said 15 members of staff remained present, but some non-cremation staff did go home early to avoid staff being photographed, “as has happened with other high profile funerals or sensitive cremations in the past” and - given that the council did not know how many people might be present - to allow staff who did not need to be present to leave “before potential volumes of traffic and media arrived.”

An “operational decision” was made, the council said, “to hold the last three cremation slots of the day.

“This decision was made in order to ensure that there were no other cremations later that day - in order to protect the privacy of other members of the public and their cremation services.

“Belfast City Council did not know whether to anticipate high numbers or otherwise and therefore planned for all instances. This would be normal practice in the event of a high profile cremation.

“There is currently no waiting list at Roselawn Crematorium and no cremations were cancelled.

“Operational decisions like these, made by Belfast City Council are made impartially in what is often a complex and difficult political environment,” the council said.