I did not play politics during pandemic – O’Neill

Northern Ireland’s First Minister Michelle O’Neill has denied “playing politics” during the coronavirus pandemic.

Ms O’Neill, who served as deputy first minister during the pandemic, gave evidence to the UK Covid-19 Inquiry sitting in Belfast on Tuesday.

She became First Minister in February 2024.

During her evidence on Tuesday, Ms O’Neill also apologised for having attended the funeral of veteran republican Bobby Storey in June 2020 despite lockdown restrictions limiting social gatherings.

Asked by lead counsel to the inquiry Clair Dobbin KC if she felt she gave good leadership to Northern Ireland with then-first minister Arlene Foster during the pandemic, Ms O’Neill said she did.

Queen’s Birthday Honours List 2022
Arlene Foster, former leader of the DUP, was first minister during the pandemic (Liam McBurney/PA)

Baroness Foster tells Ms O’Neill in the exchange that she felt her “public undermining of Robin (Swann) was totally uncalled for”.

“If you want to effect change in a policy you are going completely the wrong way about it. You are playing politics when things are much too serious.

“It is hugely disappointing but unfortunately I’m not surprised.”

Ms O’Neill responded in the exchange: “It’s too serious to tolerate. Lives will be lost. Start listening.”

Baroness Foster went on to query whether Ms O’Neill was “calling two of your ministerial colleagues incompetent”, adding “Naomi (Long) and Robin (Swann) have both raised concerns about your behaviour”, and urged her to be “more collegiate”.

Michelle O’Neill visits Primate Dixon Primary School
The Covid inquiry was shown a tense WhatsApp exchange between Michelle O’Neill and Arlene Foster (Liam McBurney/PA)

“Our nurses are crying out for help to do their jobs. I spoke to many from the Western Trust area over this week and they need us to fight for them.”

Ms Dobbin put to Ms O’Neill the accusation of playing politics.

Ms O’Neill said she “absolutely” rejects that she played politics over Covid-19 measures.

She also pointed out the exchange came in the context of disagreement within the Executive around the closure of schools.

She said that she was “trying to find consensus around the Executive table” around issues such as school closures.

Responding to exchanges between her and Baroness Foster, Ms O’Neill said: “We had a difference of approach, that’s not politicking, (it’s) about what’s the right way and what’s the wrong way.

“As I said, I refute the allegation of playing politics, this was about what I thought was the right thing to do.”

Asked about an answer she gave at the start of Tuesday’s hearing that she did provide the leadership that the people of Northern Ireland deserved during the Covid-19 pandemic, Ms O’Neill added that she “didn’t say everything was perfect all of the time”.

“I do believe that I did lead from the front the whole way through the pandemic, as did all of my Executive colleagues,” she told the inquiry.

“I do believe that I learned the whole way through, albeit I put my hands up (on attending the Storey funeral), because that took away from all of the work that I had to put into trying to lead us through the pandemic, which was hard on everybody, right across society.”

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