Michelle O’Neill rejects claim she breached Covid-19 rules at Bobby Storey funeral

‘I stand over that my actions were within the regulations and the public health guidance’

Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland Michelle O’Neill has said she stands over her presence at the funeral of former IRA member Bobby Storey, which appeared to breach regulations on social distancing and numbers of attendees at funeral Masses.

The First Minister, Arlene Foster, said “our message has been damaged as a result of what happened yesterday [Tuesday], but I hope people will look at it and say two wrongs don’t make a right”.

Ms O’Neill has repeatedly appeared alongside Ms Foster at the daily Covid-19 media briefings, urging the public to follow the coronavirus regulations.

Explanation needed

Ms O’Neill faced calls for her resignation from the Ulster Unionist and Alliance parties on Wednesday, with Ms Foster saying she needed an explanation from Ms O’Neill as to why she felt it was acceptable not to abide by the coronavirus guidance.


“There has to be a recognition that there was wrongdoing yesterday, and when that recognition comes forward there needs to be an apology,” Ms Foster said.

Ms O’Neill was one of a number of senior Sinn Féin figures, including party leader Mary Lou McDonald, who attended the funeral of the prominent republican in west Belfast on Tuesday.

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 people were allowed to walk behind the hearse in an attempt to follow coronavirus regulations. Under the current rules, a maximum of 30 people are allowed to meet outdoors.

It is also understood social distancing arrangements were put in place inside the church, with mourners spread three to a pew, but more mourners were in attendance on Tuesday than were permitted under the regulations in force.

On Wednesday evening, the diocese of Down and Connor issued a statement clarifying that at the time of the funeral the rules were that only 10 people were permitted inside the church for the funeral Mass, and that notification of changes to the guidance was not received until after the funeral, on Tuesday evening.

The Police Service of Northern Ireland has said it will review footage gathered during the funeral and will consider any suspected breaches of the regulations.

Ms O’Neill was challenged over her actions when she and Mrs Foster appeared before a meeting of the North’s Executive Office committee on Wednesday. She refused to apologise, and said opponents were “playing politics” over her attendance at the funeral.

Asked by DUP MLA Christopher Stalford why she had attended the funeral when other family members had not been able to, Ms O’Neill replied: “I don’t think it’s for you to decide or to determine or to be any sort of arbiter as to what funeral I may or may not attend.

“I stand over that my actions were within the regulations and the public health guidance, so I can only control what’s within my gift,” she said, adding: “I can say very clearly I stand over and can very clearly say that I was within the guidance and the regulations.

‘Credibility’s shot’

“I put it to you that your credibility’s shot,” Mr Stalford said, with Ms O’Neill replying, “That’s your viewpoint, not mine.”

The committee chair, the SDLP’s Colin McGrath, said there seemed to be “one set of rules for some people and different set of rules for other people, and that’s very difficult for people to digest”. He asked Ms O’Neill: “Have you considered, can you discharge the role of joint head of government with any authority after this?”

“I absolutely can,” Ms O’Neill replied.

Sinn Féin MLA Martina Anderson, who also attended Mr Storey’s funeral, defended her party colleague, saying “Michelle, you had to be there yesterday. The republican family needed you there yesterday because you gave us comfort and guidance, to the family of Bobby Storey and to the wider republican family.”

Ms O’Neill did accept that what was happening in a photograph taken after the funeral and shared on social media – of herself and two men, one with his arm round her shoulder – “shouldn’t have happened”.

“I’m absolutely okay to say that,” she said, “but everything else, as I said, was done as per, what was in our control was done within the public health guidance.”

The North’s Justice Minister, the Alliance Party MLA Naomi Long, said on social media that “when those who make the rules break the rules, it is more hurtful still for all who made huge sacrifices to obey the regulations”.

Health Minister Robin Swann of the Ulster Unionist Party said on Tuesday that he hoped Ms O’Neill’s actions were not “the Dominic Cummings effect in Northern Ireland”, a reference to the controversy over the British prime ministerial adviser’s travel to a different part of Britain during the coronavirus lockdown.

Freya McClements

Freya McClements

Freya McClements is Northern Editor of The Irish Times