O’Neill denies breaking the law or social distance guidelines at Storey funeral

Assembly calls on North’s Deputy First Minister and Finance Minister to apologise for their actions

 Michelle O’Neill: “Let me state very clearly, at no stage did I seek to give offence to anyone, including this chamber, nor would I ever seek to do so.” Photograph: PA

Michelle O’Neill: “Let me state very clearly, at no stage did I seek to give offence to anyone, including this chamber, nor would I ever seek to do so.” Photograph: PA

 

The North’s Deputy First Minister has told the Stormont Assembly she “did act responsibly” and did not break either the law or social distancing guidelines at the funeral of the senior Belfast republican Bobby Storey.

A motion calling on Michelle O’Neill and the North’s Finance Minister, Conor Murphy, to apologise for their actions at the funeral was debated by MLAs for almost two hours on Tuesday evening. It was passed by a majority of Assembly members present, but has no practical consequences.

DUP MLA Christopher Stalford said Ms O’Neill’s credibility had been “shot to bits”.

During the debate Ms O’Neill repeated her apology to grieving families, saying that they had been “really, really hurt, and I’m sorry that’s the case”.

She said that at the funeral she bore personal responsibility “to ensure my actions were in compliance with the regulations and the guidance, which I take very seriously.

“I’m satisfied that I did act responsibly within the church as part of a limited group of no more than 30 people as part of the cortège, and at the cemetery in Milltown where I paid my respects.

“Let me state very clearly, at no stage did I seek to give offence to anyone, including this chamber, nor would I ever seek to do so.

“I take very seriously indeed my responsibilities as public office holder and as Deputy First Minister and joint head of government. I can assure members that I have acted in accordance with those responsibilities,” Ms O’Neill said.

The motion was signed by representatives from the other four parties in the Northern Executive – the DUP, SDLP, Ulster Unionists and Alliance.

Proposing the motion, Mr Stalford said that in a “fashion that would shame the Trump administration, the Deputy First Minister asks us to shut our eyes to what we can all see”.

The public were, he said, “urged to rely on alternative facts” and the “repetition of her assertion that she abided by the guidelines she wrote and imposed upon every other citizen in this country”.

The Deputy First Minister, he said, had written the regulations and “knows both the letter and spirit of those regulations”, adding that she continued to insist her actions had been within the regulations was “for the birds”.

He said Ms O’Neill had been “zealous” in instructing others to follow the coronavirus regulations and guidelines.

These rules

“That’s what really sticks in people’s craw. That is what is at the core of this issue. Do as I say, not as I do.”

SDLP MLA Daniel McCrossan said the debate was about “we as an institution practicing what we preach to ensure confidence in this house and in our executive and in those who lead our executive”.

He said there “cannot be one rule for those who govern and one rule for everybody else”, adding that he was not sure the Deputy First Minister or her party “fully understand the depth of damage that’s been caused to the credibility of these institutions”.

Ulster Unionist party leader Steve Aiken said it was “not a matter of orange and green”, but was a matter that “goes to the core of how we deal with this crisis”.

Referring to Ms O’Neill and Mr Murphy, he said “it is you who made these rules, sold these rules, and now have indisputably broken these rules. In any other democracy both of you would have done the decent thing and resigned.”

Alliance MLA Kellie Armstrong said her party contended Sinn Féin “did not act in accordance with the health regulations” and while she accepted the Deputy First Minister had apologised for hurt families may have felt, “both she and Sinn Féin need to go further”.

The progress made by the executive in working together during the coronavirus pandemic, she said, “has now fallen apart”.

“We need to rebuild the public’s trust,” she said, adding that Sinn Féin must reflect “on the damage done” and accept the issue they had created by offering an apology.