Confidence in Executive shaken when schools in Ireland closed in 2020 – O’Neill

An announcement of school closures in the Irish Republic in March 2020 when schools in Northern Ireland remained open shook public confidence, Michelle O’Neill has said.

Ms O’Neill, who served as deputy first minister during the coronavirus pandemic, also blasted the Irish government for not telling Stormont in advance.

Stormont followed advice from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) which changed to recommend the closure of schools later in March.

Stormont Assembly
First Minister Michelle O’Neill (Oliver McVeigh/PA)

Giving evidence to the inquiry sitting in Belfast on Tuesday, Ms O’Neill said she was baffled that their advice around schools could be so different on either sides of the border.

She said the Irish government moving to school closures “precipitated a whole new set of circumstances”, and criticised Dublin for not telling Stormont about it as “not good enough”, and that it “put us all in a very difficult spot”.

“We live in a small island, two jurisdictions back to back, and particularly in relation to the issue of schools closure. Parents in Strabane couldn’t understand why parents in Lifford weren’t sending their children to school,” she said.

“It just didn’t compute in people’s minds, so much so that I just couldn’t understand it and I tried to understand from within the Executive, I tried to ask the CMO (chief medical officer) about the difference of advice.

“I wasn’t privy to what the advice was in Dublin. If Dublin were wrong, and were at different junctures throughout the pandemic, I would say that, if London were right, I would say that.

The inquiry heard that Ms O’Neill issued a public statement on March 12 saying Northern Ireland was not at the stage of needing to close schools, but on March 13 issued a statement as Sinn Fein vice president calling for the immediate closure of schools.

“In 24 hours, a lot had changed … we had lost the wider public, they were taking the children out of schools. The Catholic bishops had came out and asked for all schools to close their doors,” she said.

“We were very, very quickly rapidly descending into an unmanaged school closure. It was much much better to do it in a managed way and that was why I felt obliged to speak out, and I couldn’t get that concerted agreement, that joined-up effort and agreement in the Executive itself, because the CMO had advised that we were not in the position to move to this juncture yet.

“I tried everything that I could to try to get people onto that right position where I thought … unfortunately, we couldn’t get to that juncture.

“It’s not ideal. But it was the only way in which I could try to influence the decision.

“I felt like lives could be lost if we didn’t take this decision so I felt like that having not been able to secure what I tried to secure within (the Executive).

“Does my statement add to confusion? Yes, of course. Do I believe it was the right thing to do? Yes, I do because I felt like we had lost people.

“In that 24 hours we were actually committing to remove the children from schools, schools were shutting down, even education authorities like CCMS (Council for Catholic Maintained Schools) were telling schools to close.”

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