Northern Ireland news

Michelle O'Neill stands by decision to attend Bobby Storey funeral

Sinn Féin vice president Michelle O'Neill speaking in Milltown Cemetery at the funeral of veteran republican Bobby Storey
By David Young, PA

DEPUTY First Minister Michelle O'Neill has strongly defended her attendance at the funeral of veteran republican Bobby Storey, accusing critics of trying to score political points.

The Sinn Féin vice-president has faced calls to resign from the Ulster Unionists and Alliance Party after she and senior party colleagues were among hundreds who gathered in west Belfast for the funeral on Tuesday.

First Minister and DUP leader Arlene Foster yesterday urged her partner in government to apologise and make amends for her presence after thousands of people lined the route in Andersonstown.

The controversy was aired during robust exchanges at Stormont as both leaders appeared for a scheduled evidence session before their assembly scrutiny committee.

Ms O'Neill defended her actions, while acknowledging that a selfie taken at the cemetery beside two men, one of whom had his arm on her shoulder, "should not have happened".

She made clear she would not be quitting and declined the opportunity to apologise to anyone who might have contracted Covid-19 as a result of being among the crowds.

The Deputy First Minister told committee members the things the funeral organisers could control, such as the size of the cortège and the numbers inside the church, were within the latest regulations.

She insisted the cortege was limited to 30 while social distancing inside the church was "exemplary".

It is understood more than 100 people were inside St Agnes' church.

Contention surrounds the fact the guidelines Sinn Féin has cited are still in draft format, and have not been formally signed off by the power-sharing executive.

The draft guidance allows more people to attend church services than the limit of 10 that has applied.

Ms O'Neill told MLAs: "I can stand over my actions. I have led through this pandemic from the front, I will continue to lead from the front and I continue to work within the regulations and encourage everybody to stick within the regulations and the guidance as we have set out."

She added: "I do think it's unfortunate that a lot of the charges that are being levelled towards me are political points scoring, as opposed to actually being about the rules.

"But that's not to take away, I am being very clear, to anyone who's lost throughout this pandemic, this has been an absolute nightmare."

The Sinn Féin vice president added: "I can only control what's within my gift."

She said her party's actions, such as live streaming the funeral and putting stewards on the roadside to stop people joining the cortège, had prevented the crowds reaching many thousands.

At points the hearing turned into pointed exchanges between unionist and republican members about Mr Storey's past and the origins of the Troubles.

Mrs Foster interjected after one such exchange.

Noting her own family's experience of the Troubles, she added: "We could all sit here and reminisce about things that have happened in the past.

"We're supposed to be talking about the Covid-19 regulations, and how they have impacted on the people of Northern Ireland."

Giving evidence alongside Ms O'Neill, the DUP leader voiced concern about the impact of the funeral scenes on Stormont's public health message.

"I think the credibility of that message has been severely damaged as a result of what happened yesterday," she said.

Ahead of the committee hearing, Mrs Foster claimed Ms O'Neill and other Sinn Fein members who attended had sent out a message of "do as I say and not as I do".

"She needs to apologise and recognise the wrong that has been done, and she absolutely needs to make amends for what happened yesterday and take steps to try and build up that credibility again," said Mrs Foster.

"Many people have had to go to through mourning and grief during this time and haven't had the comfort of people coming to their homes, they haven't had the comfort of a full service, yesterday they asked 'well, why was that the case?'"

Secretary of State Brandon Lewis also questioned the attendance of Sinn Féin executive ministers at the funeral.

"I was a bit surprised... when you are saying to people 'you've got to follow those guidelines'," he said.

"People have given so many sacrifices over the last couple of months, particularly in Northern Ireland where we have seen people really strongly following the guidelines, we've seen lower levels of things because people are following those guidelines so well."

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