Michelle O’Neill: I’m sorry for attending Bobby Storey funeral during pandemic

Northern Ireland’s First Minister Michelle O’Neill has apologised for attending a large-scale funeral for veteran republican Bobby Storey during the coronavirus pandemic.

Ms O’Neill told the Covid-19 Inquiry that she was sorry “from the bottom of her heart” for the hurt her attendance at the funeral in June 2020 had caused to families of those who lost family members to the virus.

Ms O’Neill, who was deputy first minister at the time of the pandemic, faced difficult questioning on Tuesday over a number of aspects of the Stormont Executive’s response to the health emergency.

– she accepted she should have kept WhatsApp exchanges for the Covid-19 Inquiry rather than wiping her phone;

– the continual leaking of Stormont Executive business during the coronavirus pandemic created a “deep sense of frustration” for Stormont’s leaders;

– she rejected a claim that Stormont ministers failed to show leadership at the outset of the coronavirus pandemic;

– she said a DUP move to trigger a cross-community vote on public health advice was “wholly inappropriate”.

Stormont Assembly
Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald and Michelle O’Neill during the funeral (Liam McBurney/PA)

Footage of large crowds gathered on the streets for the send-off sparked controversy at the time, and the UK Covid-19 Inquiry has heard evidence that it chilled relations within the Stormont Executive.

This included the ending of the joint Covid-19 press conferences with Ms O’Neill and the then-first minister Arlene Foster.

“I know that my actions also angered the families and for that I’m truly sorry. I am sorry for going and I’m sorry for the harm that’s been caused after (it),” she said.

Asked if she realised the anger that going to the funeral would cause, she said: “I didn’t but I ought to have.

“I’ve said it publicly on a number of occasions about how sorry I am and I am absolutely, from the bottom of my heart, sorry.

“I do accept wholeheartedly that I in some way damaged our Executive relations with colleagues who had been working very hard with me the whole way through, and I also accept wholeheartedly that I damaged the public health messaging and I had work to do to regain that.”

Ms O’Neill responded: “I don’t think so because they are two very different things in terms of the Boris Johnson approach of partying the whole way through the pandemic and drinking their way through it, to be quite blunt.”

Baroness Hallett said: “We didn’t find out about the partying until after the pandemic, what you did was to do something the normal bereaved couldn’t do because you wanted to go to a friend’s funeral. Isn’t saying that what Boris Johnson’s government did was wrong sort of hypocritical?”

Ms O’Neill replied: “No, I don’t think so because what I did I did under the understanding of the regulations at that time.

“But I do accept wholeheartedly that I in some way damaged our Executive relations with colleagues who had been working very hard with me the whole way through.

“I also accept wholeheartedly that I damaged the public health messaging, and I had work to do to regain that. But I did that, I worked hard to regain that trust and confidence and to lead us for the next year and a half through the pandemic.”

First Minister Michelle O’Neill
First Minister Michelle O’Neill was giving evidence to the UK Covid-19 Inquiry (Liam McBurney/PA)

Ms O’Neill: “Yes, I should have anticipated the outworking of what I did.”

She added that she attended the funeral on a personal invitation, with a cortege of 30 people.

“That’s the basis on which I attended but I am sorry, I am sorry. I should have anticipated what would happen in the aftermath and that is why I worked hard to try to regain that confidence and trust,” she said.

“Equally and more importantly, I think it’s about all the families of bereaved and people who went through horrific circumstance and the experience that they’ve had. It’s just horrendous and I would never set out to try to compound that or in any way make it more difficult for them to deal with their grief.”

Stormont executive meeting
Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill stopped holding joint press conferences after the Storey funeral (Presseye/PA)

She replied “yes”, when asked whether that was because Baroness Foster felt she could not appear on a platform with Ms O’Neill at that time.

“We had a conversation and that’s what the outcome of it was,” she said, adding that they had resumed joint press conferences later in 2020.

Peter Wilcock KC, acting for the Northern Ireland Covid Bereaved Families for Justice, asked Ms O’Neill when she realised that her attendance at the funeral had caused hurt and anger.

She said: “As soon as I listened to the many families that I met and engaged with, those who have lost loved ones throughout the pandemic.”

She then reiterated her apology for attending the funeral, stating: “I mean it from the bottom of my heart.”

During Tuesday’s evidence session, Ms O’Neill also denied “playing politics” during the coronavirus pandemic.

She told the inquiry she believed she gave good leadership during the health emergency.

Ms O’Neill was shown a tense exchange of WhatsApp messages between herself and Baroness Foster from March 2020.

In them, Baroness Foster challenged Ms O’Neill over criticism she had made of Health Minister Robin Swann amid the debate on whether schools should be closing.

The then-first minister told Ms O’Neill her “public undermining” of Mr 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,” she wrote.

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

Giving evidence to the inquiry about the messages, Ms O’Neill rejected the suggestion she was playing politics.

“We had a difference of approach, that’s not politicking, (it’s) about what’s the right way and what’s the wrong way,” she said.

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

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