Northern Ireland news

Coronavirus: Michelle O'Neill defends her attendance at Bobby Storey's funeral

Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald, former Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams, and deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill attending the funeral of senior Irish Republican and former leading IRA figure Bobby Storey in west Belfast
Seanín Graham

Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill last night defended her attendance at Bobby Storey's large funeral which Executive colleagues said "breached" coronavirus guidelines.

The Sinn Féin vice-president insisted the cortège had a "maximum of 30 people in it" in keeping with new regulations agreed on Monday.

However, photographs from the funeral showed two long lines of republicans behind the hearse, dressed in matching white shirts and black ties.

READ MORE: Hundreds gather in west Belfast for funeral of veteran republican Bobby Storey

Ms O'Neill insisted the funeral service inside St Agnes' Church was "exemplary" in terms of social distancing and hygiene, with only three people to a pew.

"It was all done in accordance with the guidelines."

Speaking to the Irish News, she said: "Regrettably a considerable number of family members were unable to take part in the cortege as a result of the current restrictions, like many other families who have been unable to properly grieve or mourn the loss of a loved one in a traditional way as a result of the Covid crisis.

"These restrictions have been very difficult for families who have lost a loved one and particularly those who lost a loved one during the period when society was in lockdown."

The funeral of republican Bobby Story makes its way to Milltown for burial Picture Mal McCann.

Health minister Robin Swann said the presence of the high-profile Sinn Féin politicians at the funeral must not become Northern Ireland's "Dominic Cummings moment".

He added that the massive turnout was a clear breach of Stormont restrictions limiting public gatherings to 30 people.

"What we are seeing...was a breach of the guidance that has been issued and has been worked on by the executive and has been supported by the executive," he said.

He added: "I sincerely hope that this isn't the Dominic Cummings effect in Northern Ireland because in our health service we can't afford it to be."

Sinn Féin vice president Michelle O'Neill speaking in Milltown Cemetery yesterday at a ceremony for veteran Republican Bobby Storey

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said: "Countless families suffered under the sensible rules put in place by the Executive. Today's display showed a blatant disregard for the sacrifices made by so many. The fact that the rules were broken by some of the people who made them makes it even harder to take."

Traditional Unionist Leader (TUV) leader Jim Allister said Ms O'Neill's attendance had made her position untenable while the Ulster Unionist MLA Doug Beattie accused her of hypocrisy.

At yesterday's coronavirus briefing, Mr Swann urged people to continue to comply with the guidance, making clear that "two wrongs don't make a right".

"There's no person, no position or there's no point of privilege that is above the guidance and the regulations that we have laid down in how we combat Covid-19 in Northern Ireland," he said.

"Because there's no one immune from it and that is the guidance we still have to keep reiterating, and I do hope that what we saw today does not undermine the public message that has worked so well in Northern Ireland, that has actually got us to the position where we are today."

Mr Swann used the west Belfast incident to warn that regional lockdowns could be introduced in the north if an upsurge in the virus, similar to that witnessed in Leicester, was to occur locally.

PSNI Superintendent Melanie Jones said: "We had assurances that those attending would observe the health guidelines and that marshals would be in place to encourage those lining the cortege route to observe social distancing.

"We will now review footage gathered during the funeral and will consider and suspected breaches of the Health Protection (Coronavirus Restrictions) Regulations NI 2020."

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