Stormont Executive lost cohesion after Storey funeral, Covid-19 inquiry hears

Cohesion within the Stormont Executive was lost following the attendance of senior Sinn Fein members at the funeral of republican Bobby Storey when lockdown restrictions were in place, the Covid-19 Inquiry has heard.

Justice Minister Naomi Long told the inquiry that her former ministerial colleague, Edwin Poots, who lost his own father during the pandemic, openly expressed the “pain and hurt” the events had caused him.

The funeral in June 2020 sparked political controversy after then deputy first minister Michelle O’Neill and other Sinn Fein ministers attended.

The gathering was criticised at the time as being in breach of Covid rules.

Covid-19 pandemic inquiry
Naomi Long arrives at the Clayton Hotel in Belfast to give evidence to the inquiry (Liam McBurney/PA)

Giving his own evidence to the inquiry on Thursday, Mr Poots said he commended Ms Ni Chuilin for apologising.

Ms Long was questioned about political tensions within the Stormont Executive during efforts to control the spread of the virus.

The Alliance Party leader said there had been cohesion in the early months with former First Minister Arlene Foster and deputy First Minister Ms O’Neill taking part in joint press conferences.

She said: “I think with the Bobby Storey funeral and others that (cohesion) was lost and I think it was never fully regained.

“I think tensions increased quite significantly as we moved out of the restrictions.

“Some ministers took those tensions public and made it very difficult for the public to have full confidence in the Executive.

“Different ministers seemed to take a very different approach and yet claimed it was based on the same advice.”

She said: “I think those joint press conferences were very powerful given what we’ve talked about in terms of the divisions between parties, that sense of unity of purpose was quite important in terms of maintaining public adherence.

“I also think it undermined people’s confidence at another more fundamental level in that if the people who were making the rules did not themselves adhere to the rules, it raised the question whether they truly believed what they were trying to achieve.”

Ms Long said that Ms O’Neill did not accept any criticism of her actions in the immediate aftermath of her funeral.

She added: “It also created significant tension within the Executive.

“Minister Poots lost his father during Covid and only six members of his family were able to attend the grave.

“His father had been a longstanding political representative and would otherwise probably have had a considerable funeral.

“I think at a personal level, Edwin openly expressed the pain and hurt it had caused him and his family, that was replicated right throughout the community.

Covid-19 pandemic inquiry
Edwin Poots arrives to give evidence to the UK Covid-19 inquiry hearing (Liam McBurney/PA)

“To have people present on the grounds of the graveyard was incredibly distressing for them and that was multiplied right across the community.”

Mr Poots told the inquiry that the scenes at the funeral had caused an “awful lot of pain”.

He added: “It diminished the role of the deputy first minister and the Sinn Fein ministers.

“I recognise the apology that was offered by Ms Ni Chuilin yesterday for that.

“I think that has been the first significant recognition by somebody from that political party to do that and I commend her for making that apology.”

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