Stormont leaders at odds on certain coronavirus issues but united on saving lives

First Minister Arlene Foster and Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill at the Northern Ireland Executive's daily press update on the response to the Covid-19 crisis in the Long Gallery, Parliament Buildings, Stormont. Picture by Liam McBurney/PA Wire
David Young and Rebecca Black, PA

Stormont’s leaders have acknowledged they are at odds on certain coronavirus issues, but have insisted they are united on the main goal of saving lives.

Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill said differences of opinion should be expected within a five-party coalition government.

The First Minister and Deputy First Minister were responding to reports of growing tensions around the executive table over issues such as testing numbers, personal protection equipment stocks and closure of non-essential businesses.

Earlier this month, the two main executive parties, the DUP and Sinn Fein, were also divided on when schools should close.

At the leaders’ daily Covid-19 press briefing at Stormont on Monday, Mrs Foster said: “We are a five-party executive, I don’t think there is anybody who shies away from that fact.

“But be very clear – we know that this is a national emergency, we know that we have to step up to the plate and whatever differences we may have about emphasis, or ways of doing things, or who do we listen to, it is important that we are able to be free to have those discussions at the executive, then come forward with a common strategy and that is what we’ve done today.”

Ms O’Neill, who said executive ministers had agreed a refreshed strategy on Monday, rejected any suggestion the disagreements were linked to traditional political divisions.

“This isn’t an orange and green issue,” she said.

“This isn’t Dublin versus London. It’s not even about the DUP versus Sinn Fein, this is about me standing up for the views that I have heard from those people who work on the frontline and I will continue to do that.

“And I will also continue to work with executive colleagues.”

With 123 new cases of the infection reported, the number of confirmed cases of Covid-19 in Northern Ireland is 533.

Ms O’Neill said she would not be a “wallflower” and hold back from expressing her views within the executive.

“We are a five-party executive, at many times and on many given issues we’ll have a difference of opinion,” she said.

“The executive’s priority is about saving lives, it’s about how do we protect our people as best that we can.”

New regulations enforcing social distancing in the region include fines of up to £5,000 for those failing to follow laws to prevent the spread of Covid-19.

The regulations, which came into force on Saturday night, flow from the emergency laws passed at Westminster last week.

Mrs Foster and Ms O’Neill said the regulations would be reviewed every three weeks and fines could be potentially increased, to as high as £100,000, if they felt there was a need for tougher sanctions.

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