Northern Ireland

‘Missing notes’ on Bobby Storey funeral submitted to the UK Covid-19 Inquiry

The Executive Office had been repeatedly challenged by the inquiry to produce the documents

Michelle O’Neill was one of a number of Sinn Fein leaders criticised for attending the funeral of Bobby Storey
Michelle O’Neill was one of a number of Sinn Fein leaders criticised for attending the funeral of Bobby Storey

MISSING notes from a key Stormont meeting after the controversial funeral of republican Bobby Storey have resurfaced at the UK Covid-19 Inquiry.

There was political controversy after Sinn Féín leaders including then Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill joined the huge crowd in June 2020, despite coronavirus restrictions that limited gatherings at the time.

The next meeting of the Executive took place on July 2 2020, but it had been presumed the handwritten notes from the session had been lost.

Earlier this week, the former head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service (NICS) Sir David Sterling told the inquiry the fallout from the funeral had created a “discernible chill” between Ms O’Neill and then First Minister Arlene Foster.

On Friday morning, the inquiry was informed that the The Executive Office (TEO) had actually located the notes.

Officials were said to be “surprised” by the development, having believed they had already been disclosed.

Counsel to the inquiry, Clair Dobbins KC, questioned this and said it had been made clear to TEO on multiple occasions 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 the 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.”

Inquiry chairwoman Baroness Hallet said she would consider taking the matter further, adding: “It’s not a very happy picture.”

Three weeks of hearings are currently taking place in Belfast as part of the UK-wide inquiry.

The current module is examining the early response to the pandemic in Northern Ireland, central government decision-making as well as the effectiveness of devolved administrations.

Jayne Brady, head of the Northern Irish civil service
Jayne Brady, Head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service. (Niall Carson/PA)

On Friday, the inquiry heard from the head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service Jayne Brady.

She answered questions about information WhataApp messages being deleted from the mobile phones of Stormont ministers.

Calling it “regretful” that information important to bereaved families was lost, she said it showed the “vulnerabilities” of a system that was 20 years old, and that the same problems had emerged during the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) inquiry.

“We’re hearing it now because it shows the journey that we still need to travel,” she said.

Other issues raised was that it was not until mid-March 2020 that a strategic plan was made to help Stormont departments coordinate their response to the pandemic.

That month, senior civil servants in Northern Ireland had expressed their concerns over the lack of a response structure in place.

The inquiry also heard from senior civil servant Karen Pearson, who said that suggestions of a ministerial reshuffle during the pandemic, including moving the Health Minister Robin Swann, “wasn’t being complicated”.

Material disclosed this week had heard of frustration from Ms O’Neill, and to a lesser extent Mrs Foster, about their lack of control over the health service.

A senior official in the Department of Finance at the time, Hugh Widdis, had suggested a “ministerial reshuffle” in an email exchange.

Ms Pearson commented on Friday: “So I think this is very much a snapshot of how difficult things were at that time.

“Had it reached the point where any of this was being contemplated? No, I don’t think so.”

She added that she did not think it was the place of civil servants to suggest moving elected politicians out of their positions.

“Here even more so than anywhere else, having to compromise all the time is almost the structure that’s built into the system, but you can occasionally fall back into very different view points, which is what I think caused this email exchange,” she said.

“I don’t think we can expect them to entirely leave their party political views at the door, but beyond this point I think we were seeing huge efforts at compromise all the time and on an ongoing basis.”

Baroness Hallett said: “Can I just challenge that, in time of a national emergency when people are dying, can’t we expect politicians to leave their party politics behind and think of the people that are suffering and dying, or am I being unrealistic?”

Ms Pearson said: “I am not suggesting that what I said about party political views means that they’re not caring about the people.

“The concern about the virus, the impact on people, the health outcomes, and that unfortunately people were going to lose loved ones, that was absolutely top of their priorities.

“What I’m suggesting is, they’re going to come at things from angles, but having that fundamental core objective of making this better was there.

“I have absolutely no doubt about that in my mind.”