O’Neill denies ‘lack of leadership at Stormont’ at outset of pandemic

Michelle O’Neill has rejected a claim from a former head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service that Stormont ministers failed to show leadership at the outset of the coronavirus pandemic.

Giving evidence to the Covid-19 inquiry in Belfast, Ms O’Neill was shown a message sent by Sir David Sterling reflecting on what he referred to as an “excruciating” meeting of the Executive on March 16 where there was “no leadership on display at all”.

Senior counsel to the inquiry, Clair Dobbin KC, asked Ms O’Neill to reflect on why the region’s most senior civil servant might have come to that view on the conduct of that meeting.

Ms O’Neill, who was deputy first minister between 2020 and 2022, replied: “There’s no doubt it was a difficult meeting, but that doesn’t equate to a lack of leadership. I think that equates to the complexity of the issues in which we were dealing and trying to work our way through.

“I don’t accept that it was a lack of leadership. I accept it was a difficult circumstance that we’re trying to navigate our way through.”

Ms O’Neill told the inquiry that a range of factors – including “austerity” policies advanced by the Government; diversion of attention to Brexit preparations; and the three-year powersharing impasse at Stormont from 2017 to 2020 – had affected the administration’s level of preparedness for an event such as a pandemic.

She agreed with Ms Dobbin’s suggestion that Stormont was “woefully underprepared” to go into a lockdown.

The counsel to the inquiry then showed Ms O’Neill another message sent by Mr Sterling. That was an email written at the end of March 2020 in which he made some “take away” observations based on conversations he had had with people on the response to the pandemic.

One of those suggested ministers were not showing strong enough leadership. He wrote that ministers had not been required to make “many difficult decisions” due to the Government directing so much money into mitigation measures, but said when they had been faced with hard choices, such as over the closure of schools and businesses, they had been “found wanting”.

Ms O’Neill again she rejected the assessment.

“Once again, I don’t agree with the HOCS assessment,” she said.

“Ministers were completely in the maelstrom of the pandemic, weeks into being back around the Executive table (after powersharing was restored).”

She added: “Ministers were faced with hard decisions and, quite frankly, is a bit rich for the head of the Civil Service to speak in that way whenever ministers were very clear that people’s whole lives were about to be disrupted, and particularly in terms of shutting down society, shutting down businesses, people losing their jobs. How did you go out and convince people that that was the thing to do with no mitigation whatsoever?”

Ms O’Neill said the Executive could only act when the Treasury provided the money to mitigate the consequences of lockdown.

She said closing schools and businesses was “not easy”.

“Ministers are part of the community, ministers had families, ministers had the same worries and stresses that everybody else had and understood so acutely our local community and what their needs were, and I believe that their constant rock-and-a-hard-place decisions that they had to take, all those things weighed heavy on their mind,” she said.

“So that’s really what I’d offer in terms of that commentary. I think it was not easy. But we were determined to try and do our best.”

– Advertisement –
– Advertisement –