Northern Ireland

Analysis: Contrition and deflection mask Michelle O’Neill’s leadership failings

The first minister was composed in front of the Covid Inquiry but her evidence did little to instill public confidence

First Minister Michelle O'Neill at the Covid Inquiry

IRA funerals, tetchy texts between Executive ministers, and questions over wiped mobile devices suggested we were in for an enthralling day’s evidence from First Minister Michelle O’Neill.

It would be stretching things to describe the Sinn Féin deputy leader’s appearance at the Covid Inquiry as box office but arguably it generated the greatest level of public interest so far.

She was the most senior of the Sinn Féin Stormont ministers who, along with thousands of others, attended the funeral of senior republican Bobby Storey. It was at the height of the pandemic, at a time when the population faced unprecedented restrictions on their movements and gatherings, including very limited numbers at funerals.

An apology last week from party colleague Carál Ní Chuilín for attending what some unionists characterised as a ‘republican show of strength’ indicated that Ms O’Neill would do likewise. Previously, she insisted that she would “never apologise for attending the funeral of a friend”.

There was an expectation that due to the chronology of events, the questioning from inquiry counsel Clair Dobbin KC would move gradually to this particular issue. However, the first minister had barely got comfortable in her seat in the morning session before the events of June 2020 became the focus of the inquiry’s attention.

Counsel for the Covid Inquiry Clair Dobbin

A decision had clearly been made to ‘fess up’. There was no effort on Ms O’Neill’s part to equivocate or qualify; she simply said she was “truly sorry” and accepted that her actions had “compounded the hurt” of those families who lost loved ones during the pandemic, as well as undermining the public health message.

She conceded that at the time she hadn’t considered that failing to adhere to the public guidance would anger people but, in hindsight, agreed that she ought to have.

Yet Ms O’Neill rejected inquiry chair Baroness Hallett’s contention that criticisms of Boris Johnson and associates’ lockdown parties contained in the first minister’s witness statement were “hypocritical”.

Later in the afternoon, the first minister faced more pointed questions about the funeral from Peter Wilcock KC on behalf of Northern Ireland Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice.

Again, her words unambiguously contradicted what she said in the immediate aftermath of the funeral controversy. When asked if she would do the same again, Ms O’Neill responded: “I ought not to have went, I should not have went.”

The public will make up their own mind on the first minister’s belated backpeddling. She gave the genuine impression of accepting what she did was wrong but there was also a sense that Ms O’Neill had little choice than to hold her hands up, rather than doubling down.

It was at least one example of the then deputy first minister taking responsibility for her actions. Listening to the evidence from Ms O’Neill and her ministerial colleagues, it’s hard to disagree with the former head of the civil service David Sterling’s blunt characterisation of the “dysfunctional” executive.

Between the first minister’s witness statement and yesterday’s evidence, it’s apparent that while there’s an acknowledgement that lessons need to be learned, there’s little indication that she accepts her own role in the mess that emerged. Tory austerity, three years without government, an overbearing Department of Health, and the nature of mandatory coalition all shared the blame.

Even the wiping of a mobile device, against the legal advice issued by the inquiry, was put down to a “misunderstanding”.

Some were surprised by the first minister’s composure during what was an unprecedented grilling but in many ways her contrition coupled with a capacity to deflect responsibility only served to mask her failings as a leader in the midst of a crisis.