NI parties to bring motion seeking apology from O’Neill

Assembly ‘owed an explanation’ for Deputy First Minister’s apparent breach of Covid-19 guidelines

 Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald, former  leader Gerry Adams, and Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill at the funeral of senior Irish republican  Bobby Storey in west Belfast. Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA Wire

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald, former leader Gerry Adams, and Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill at the funeral of senior Irish republican Bobby Storey in west Belfast. Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA Wire

 

Four of the five parties in government in Northern Ireland will this week call in the Assembly for an apology from the Deputy First Minister following the controversy over her presence at the funeral of Belfast republican Bobby Storey.

It is understood the motion, which could come before the Assembly as early as Tuesday, will express their disappointment at Sinn Féin Ministers who breached public health guidance and effectively asks for an explanation for their actions.

Michelle O’Neill was among a number of senior party figures who attended the funeral of the former IRA member in west Belfast on Tuesday.

The funeral appeared to breach both social distancing guidelines and the coronavirus regulations in a number of respects, including the limit on the number of people allowed inside the church for Requiem Mass.

Ms O’Neill said on Friday that she was sorry for any additional hurt her presence had caused to grieving families, but 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 Requiem Mass, which was allowed, and also to walk in a funeral cortege of up to 30 people.”

A crowd listens to former Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams speak during the funeral of senior Irish republican Bobby Storey at Milltown Cemetery in west Belfast. Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA Wire
A crowd listens to former Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams speak during the funeral of senior Irish republican Bobby Storey at Milltown Cemetery in west Belfast. Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA Wire

This has been rejected by the other four parties in the Northern Executive – the DUP, SDLP, Ulster Unionists and Alliance – with First Minister Arlene Foster saying that the apology “falls short”. The other party leaders were “very clear that the Deputy First Minister had broken the guidance and the regulations.”

Speaking on the BBC’s Sunday Politics show, the North’s Minister for Justice and leader of the Alliance Party, Naomi Long, said the Assembly was “owed an explanation” and she hoped the credibility of the Northern Executive had not been damaged.

Ms O’Neill’s apology, she said, was “somewhat short” of what was required “in that it didn’t acknowledge the responsibility for her actions.

“It wasn’t just that she attended an event which got out of control in terms of numbers. This was a Sinn Féin-organised event, the stewards were from Sinn Féin, so they knew it was going to be a large gathering before she went and she made a conscious choice to be there when it was contrary to the regulations and to the advice.”

The issue, Ms Long said, was “about confidence between the public and the Executive in terms of the things we may have to ask of them again later this year.

“If there’s a second spike, will they treat the regulations and the advice and guidance with the same respect they have to date?

“I hope they will, but it is a problem, and I think we need acknowledgement of that from Michelle and I think an apology for the damage done, but also I think we need to find a way forward,” she said.

However, the party leaders have been clear the crisis will not threaten the survival of the Executive.

“We have to be able to rebuild trust,” said Ms Long. “The Executive has gone off the rails before because people threw up their hands in despair and walked away. We can’t afford to do that, Northern Ireland can’t afford for us to do that.”