Michelle O’Neill ‘accepts’ she should have kept WhatsApp data for Covid inquiry

Stormont First Minister Michelle O’Neill has said she accepts she should have kept WhatsApp exchanges for the Covid-19 Inquiry rather than wiping her phone.

The inquiry previously heard that a number of government-issued devices allocated to ministers were reset.

It was told that former first minister Arlene Foster returned her phone after leaving office in July 2021 and it was restored to factory settings by IT staff.

Appearing at the inquiry on Tuesday, Ms O’Neill was questioned about this action and the guidance she had received on retaining records for the inquiry.

Lead counsel to the inquiry Clair Dobbin KC said retrieved WhatsApp exchanges between Ms O’Neill and Baroness Foster “do discuss substantive matters about the response to the pandemic”.

Ms O’Neill responded: “They may have been a to and fro in a conversation outside a meeting but the official record was the official record in terms of decisions made.

“Arlene and I couldn’t decide on a message to do something, we’d have to bring it to the Executive. So all decisions were recorded on the official record and in terms of what the civil service hold.”

Ms O’Neill said she had been agriculture minister and health minister previously, and she believed current Justice Minister Naomi Long had the same approach because of sensitive information.

The counsel pressed the First Minister over whether that was correct.

Ms O’Neill said the statement was “referring to be able to understand that everything is recorded in terms of decisions on the official record”, adding: “I’m happy to correct that if you think that that’s appropriate.”

Ms Dobbin referred to a discussion about Covid restriction fines in a message between Ms O’Neill and Baroness Foster.

She asked Ms O’Neill: “These are certainly not just administrative matters are they, or fixing dates for meetings?”

Ms O’Neill said: “No, you’re right there. They are an exchange around issues but they will not be the formal record of any decision that will be made.”

Ms Dobbin said the duty to record is not just confined to a formal record.

Ms Dobbin pressed Ms O’Neill about being informed of her obligations to the inquiry in terms of retaining all evidence by the head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, Jayne Brady.

Ms O’Neill said: “I accept that I should have kept my additional exchanges, in particular with Arlene, and anything else that was relevant.

“I thought that I did, but clearly I didn’t.”

Ms O’Neill said there was “clearly a misunderstanding on my part in terms of informal communication and what that meant”.

“By and large, I am satisfied that the vast, vast majority of everything that I communicated was on the device and hopefully on the official record, but I concede that my understanding of the WhatsApp and informal communication is not at where it should have been,” she said.

Ms Dobbin said Ms O’Neill “might be satisfied, but this inquiry doesn’t have the chance to be satisfied about what’s contained on your device”.

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