‘Chill’ between Foster and O’Neill after Storey funeral, Covid inquiry told

There was a “discernible chill” between Northern Ireland’s First Minister Arlene Foster and deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill following the funeral of IRA veteran Bobby Storey, the Covid-19 Inquiry has heard.

Ms O’Neill attended the large-scale funeral in west Belfast for Mr Storey in June 2020 despite lockdown restrictions on public gatherings.

The then head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, Sir David Sterling, said her attendance affected relations at the Stormont Executive.

This included Ms Foster and Ms O’Neill stopping their then daily joint press conferences on Covid-19.

Stormont Assembly
Then deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill attended the funeral of former leading IRA figure Bobby Storey at Milltown Cemetery in west Belfast (PA) 

“The atmosphere in the Executive was difficult after that. One of the most immediate practical implications was that the joint press conferences which took place most afternoons by the First Minister and deputy First Minister stopped, and that was significant because the feedback we got from the start from attitude surveys etc was that the community found those press conferences very helpful, very reassuring, and it was a very visible manifestation of ministers working together, and the absence of that I think did reduce public confidence for a period of time,” he said.

“People on the outside perhaps don’t fully understand that even parties who were diametrically opposed on a whole range of issues, they can actually work together quite well behind the scenes, but there was a discernible chill after that.

“Business was still transacted… issues were still brought to the Executive, discussions still took place, decisions were taken. I don’t recall that that became any more difficult than it had been.”

Pressed by Clair Dobbin, lead counsel to the inquiry, Sir David added: “It wasn’t helpful… generally it’s just harder to do business whenever the relationship is not as it should be.”

Queen’s Birthday Honours List 2020
Sir David Sterling was head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service (PA)

In one message on March 17, he described an Executive meeting the previous day as “excruciating”, adding “no leadership on display at all”.

On Wednesday, Sir David was asked about the message by Ms Dobbin.

He said he wanted to clarify that message came during what he said “was probably the most difficult two or three days that I experienced during the first wave”.

He added: “It was a protracted discussion, people had got into fixed positions, it had split along Nationalist/Unionist lines.

“My frustration, as expressed in a message that night, was born of a concern that this might be how things played out from here.

“Now, there were difficulties on occasion afterward but by and large not of that magnitude.”

Sir David added: “I think it’s just recognising our context where we have five parties in an enforced coalition, very different ideologies, very different aspirations for this place, having to work together, but I think it’s important to recognise that on all the big issues they eventually did reach decisions.

“It was painstaking, it was difficult at times but decisions were taken.”

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