Foster and O’Neill get back on same public-health page at Stormont

First and deputy first ministers resume briefings after Storey funeral controversy

It was like old times at Stormont. The first and deputy first ministers were back at their socially-distanced podiums, addressing each other by their first names as they handed over.

Both were even wearing navy, and – whether carefully co-ordinated or a happy accident – it served to underline the message that – for now at least – both were firmly back on the same public-health page.

After more than two months apart over the furore which followed the presence of O'Neill at the west Belfast funeral of IRA veteran Bobby Storey on June 30th – a funeral which appeared to repeatedly break both social-distancing guidelines and coronavirus regulations – it took less than 24 hours to bring them back together following O'Neill's expression of "regret" on RTÉ on Wednesday night.

The door had been opened by Foster, who last week subtly changed her ask from one of repentance to an acknowledgement that the public messaging had been damaged.


This O’Neill could do: “I do accept the public messaging about the pandemic has been undermined by the controversy over the last number of months,” was how she phrased it at that first press conference on Thursday. “It was never my intention that that would happen, but it did, and I regret that.”

Political controversy aside, it has been evident for some time that the North was approaching a watershed moment in its fight against coronavirus.

"The message is simple, folks. The summer is over," was the warning from the North's health minister, Robin Swann, on Wednesday, ahead of Thursday's Executive meeting at which, it had been widely telegraphed, ministers would for the first time reimpose localised restrictions in the worst-affected parts of the North.

‘Firm message’

Clearly, it was time for the deputy first minister to get back to the podium. "The perception may have been for some people that it was in some way undermining the public message and creat[ing] confusion . . . Anything that could cause confusion has to be regretted," said Sinn Féin MLA Francie Molloy. "It's [about] trying to move on to the next stage of this whole thing . . . to get [a] firm message in preparation for the wintertime."

For a party in government in the North contemplating the prospect of a hard winter, it makes sense to put the summer’s controversy behind them, not least because, if things get really difficult, it will be one charge fewer that can be laid at their door by their opponents.

And, as the re-emergence of Brexit proved this week, there is plenty else on the agenda in the North. For O’Neill as much as Foster – who has come under pressure within her own party over the withdrawal agreement – there is much to be said for being able to put at least one running sore behind them.

Such is often the way in the North, where mandatory coalition means any censure has no real effect as long as a politician has their own party’s support.

Senior Sinn Féin politicians – and senior political figures in Dublin, including party leader Mary Lou McDonald and finance spokesman Pearse Doherty – had all attended the funeral in Belfast.

McDonald and Doherty on Thursday supported O’Neill’s comments and apology but neither really repeated the sentiments expressed by the party’s Northern-based leadership.

The apology was qualified also. In her comments McDonald’s acknowledged that the large crowds on the street gave rise to legitimate public concerns around public health.

However, she did not extend the comments to the other events of the day, namely the orations given by Gerry Adams and Doherty at Milltown cemetery.

Predictably, other political parties piled in, reminding people of Sinn Féin's call for heads over "golfgate". Tánaiste Leo Varadkar accused the party of hypocrisy, honing in on the oration – or "political rally", as he put it – at Milltown, which took place 14km away from the cremation.

Sinn Féin believes, however, it has done enough to draw a line under the matter.