Cross-community vote on Covid measures ‘wholly inappropriate’, says O’Neill

A DUP move to trigger a cross-community vote on public health advice at the height of the pandemic was “wholly inappropriate”, Michelle O’Neill has told the Covid-19 Inquiry.

Northern Ireland’s First Minister said the Stormont Executive’s approach to voting on extensions to lockdown restrictions was one contributory factor leading to a rise in infections at the beginning of 2021.

The inquiry, sitting in Belfast, is investigating the initial response to the pandemic, central government decision-making and political and civil service performance.

A cross-community vote triggered by the DUP effectively gave the party a veto over the proposals.

Lead counsel for the inquiry Clair Dobbin KC asked Ms O’Neill if this had been damaging to relations within the Executive as well as public confidence.

Ms O’Neill said: “Yes, I believe it was.

“The cross-community provision is in order to protect minorities when what we were discussing in terms of decision-making at the Executive was in relation to regulations which impacted across wider society.

“There have been other times when votes (on public health measures) were taken, but on a straight bat, and that should have been how business was conducted at this time.”

Ms O’Neill said it was clear that DUP ministers had wanted to “mark cards” by vetoing the health advice.

She added: “I think, given where we were at the end of that very difficult year, where we were with transmission rates, where we were with growing anti-Covid, even thinking in relation to vaccinations and the anti sentiment that started to rise at that time, it was unhelpful because it fuelled a lot of that kind of noise.

“There is no stretch of the imagination that would articulate it was the right thing to do to deploy a cross-community vote for public health advice.

Covid-19 pandemic inquiry
First Minister Michelle O’Neill leaves the Clayton Hotel in Belfast (Liam McBurney/PA)

Ms Dobbin asked the First Minister what factors contributed to a rising death rate in January 2021.

Ms O’Neill said 2020 had been a “difficult year” and many of the public were “fed up” with restrictions.

She added: “I think voting against the public health advice is a stark underlining of some of the complexities of the nature of governance we had.

“The whole approach around that period clearly led to an increased transmission rate.”

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