Northern Ireland

Covid-19 inquiry: Investigation into ‘missing’ notes from key Executive meeting

The UK Covid-19 Inquiry had previously been told that handwritten notes of the meeting on July 2 2020 had not been located.

Jayne Brady, NICS head, leaves the Clayton Hotel in Belfast after giving evidence
Jayne Brady, NICS head, leaves the Clayton Hotel in Belfast after giving evidence (Liam McBurney/PA)

An investigation has been ordered after it emerged there were “missing” notes from a key meeting of the Stormont Executive.

The handwritten notes related to a meeting of the Executive on July 2 2020, which was the first meeting of ministers after the funeral of senior Republican Bobby Storey.

The funeral sparked political controversy after then deputy first minister Michelle O’Neill and other Sinn Fein ministers attended, despite lockdown restrictions limiting gatherings.

The UK Covid-19 Inquiry had previously been told the notes were not held.

Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald (left) and Michelle O’Neill at the funeral of senior Irish Republican Bobby Storey
Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald (left) and Michelle O’Neill at the funeral of senior Irish Republican Bobby Storey (Liam McBurney/PA)

At the start of Friday’s hearings, lead counsel for the inquiry Clair Dobbin KC, said they had been informed by the Executive Office (TEO) that the notes had been located.

Inquiry chairwoman Baroness Hallett said she was “very concerned” about what she had heard, and would consider whether her team will pursue it further.

“It’s not a very happy picture,” she added.

Giving evidence to the inquiry on Friday, the current head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service (NICS) Jayne Brady, said she had ordered an investigation into the matter.

Earlier this week, the former head of NICS Sir David Sterling told the inquiry there was a “discernible chill” between then first minister Arlene Foster and Ms O’Neill after the funeral.

On Friday Ms Dobbin said the inquiry was approached by TEO after opening statements to say “in fact they had the minutes of the July 2 meeting”, and that officials were “surprised” as they believed the notes had been supplied to the inquiry.

She outlined the efforts that had been made by the inquiry to obtain those notes and follow-up queries about missing material.

Ms Dobbin said the inquiry “set out to the Executive Office that these handwritten notes cover a period of significant interest to the inquiry and it’s plainly of concern if these are in fact missing”.

She added: “It suffices to say that despite those notes having been found, and despite the sheer number of requests having been made, despite the fact that TEO in fact told the inquiry that those notes weren’t held, and despite the very specific questions that the inquiry asked about the precise circumstances in which notes like this could go missing, they weren’t provided until after the opening had been given.”

During her evidence, Ms Brady, who took her post in September 2021, was asked by Ms Dobbin whether there is a wider issue within TEO about disclosure, referring also to the wiping of some devices belonging to ministers.

Ms Brady said: “I can see how the pattern of events compounds to draw those characteristics.”

She expressed concern about the fullness of the disclosure around the July 2 meeting, why notes were lost and why it took so long to be provided.

“I wasn’t aware of the lack of disclosure of that item until you addressed that on Tuesday,” she said, adding that she has asked for an investigation.

“There will be many questions which will have to be asked about the late providing of information, the rationale why that was provided late, and how this builds into the overall perspective of what we’re trying to achieve in fulfilling our objectives, our commitments and our code of ethics around openness and transparency.

“There are many areas of concern that have been raised through this process as well.”

Ms Brady was also questioned about the wiping of devices that were assigned to ministers.

She said she had issued a number of communications to staff about the importance of retaining records for the inquiry.

She said she discovered that the First and deputy First Ministers’ phones had been wiped in August 2022 and began an investigation into the extent of the data loss.

Then First Minister Arlene Foster (left) and deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill
Then First Minister Arlene Foster (left) and deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill (Liam McBurney/PA)

The inquiry heard that Ms Foster returned her issued mobile phone when she left office in July 2021 and it was restored to factory settings by IT.

Her successor Paul Givan returned his mobile phone when he left office in February 2022. An official said they could not recall if it was reset immediately.

Ms O’Neill was issued with a mobile phone and iPad. The inquiry heard those were wiped before they were returned in February 2022.

Ms Brady said there appeared to have been a “disconnect” with staff in terms of their perception of the level of information that met the requirements for disclosure.

“I think that’s been characteristic of the engagements they would have had, very regrettably, with the inquiry in terms of fulsomeness of the information that has been provided, which to me was very clear in coming into post, but did not appear to be clear within departments,” she said.

“I think there was a view that that was regarding decision-making and the formal record, versus everything that is pertinent to the work of governance, the context for a decision.”

Ms Brady said “vast swathes” of information has been provided to the inquiry from civil servants and some of the ministers.

“The system failed to look at the collective responsibility as part of that to give effect to the legal guidance,” she added.

Baroness Hallett asked: “So they (devices) were wiped without anyone checking that the material had been recorded elsewhere?”.

Ms Brady responded: “Yes, that’s my understanding.”

Ms Dobbin put to Ms Brady that WhatsApp communications that the inquiry has in terms of Northern Ireland “do appear to discuss official business”, adding: “There’s a little bit of social chat in them, but in fact in large part, they’re very firmly on the business side.”

Jayne Brady gave evidence to the UK Covid-19 Inquiry on Friday
Jayne Brady gave evidence to the UK Covid-19 Inquiry on Friday (Liam McBurney/PA)

Ms Brady said: “Yes,” and expressed deep regret that the issues were similar to those raised during the Renewable Heat Incentive Inquiry seven years ago.

She added: “It’s a significant issue that we have failed to address adequately in providing this to the inquiry, but also more broadly in terms of the obligations under the Freedom of Information Act

“What this has shone a light on is that all the vulnerabilities within the system.

“You have identified many different reports and policies but actually all of them have shown to have failed in this scenario to get the information, and I think that’s of deep regret for the service, for Northern Ireland but also to get the information for the bereaved families and the information that they deserve for the learnings of that.

“It is a matter of deep regret.”

The UK-wide inquiry arrived in Northern Ireland on Tuesday for three weeks of hearings in Belfast.

It will look in depth at the decisions taken in Northern Ireland.

Hearings will resume on Tuesday.