Northern Ireland news

An uncomfortable but necessary day at the office

First Minister Arlene Foster (left) and Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill during the daily media broadcast at Parliament Buildings, Stormont, in Belfast.

IT has been 73 days since the First and Deputy First Ministers stood, socially distanced, shoulder to shoulder to deliver an updated health message amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

And yet what was considered impossible just a few weeks ago seemed to come naturally to both Arlene Foster and Michelle O'Neill yesterday as they took to their podiums to deliver news of postcode coronavirus restrictions.

The DUP leader saved her initial comments entirely for the confusing raft of new measures, that will apply in Belfast, Ballymena and parts of Crumlin and Lisburn.

All these areas have seen a recent increase in coronavirus cases.

If the DUP leader was finding it difficult sharing a stage with her Sinn Féin counterpart - the first time since the fall out over senior republican Bobby Storey's funeral - she certainly didn't show it.

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Michelle O'Neill knew this was a time to clear the air and so immediately repeated her acknowledgement of the damage caused to the Executive Office's ability to deliver a public health message.

She was apologetic without actually saying the words "I'm sorry".

The increase in positive tests and the looming winter flu season was clearly a huge motivating factor in getting the two senior politicians together.

The early morning statement by Ms O'Neill on RTÉ news, for the first time acknowledging damage caused, appeared part of a careful piece of political choreography, designed to get things moving sooner than many had anticipated.

It required Mrs Foster to take a step ahead of the hardliners in her party, some of whom would be happy not to share power with Sinn Féin, never mind a platform with them.

But her no-nonsense attitude, as assembled press asked questions about the sudden reunion and the latest lockdown measures, will have played well with the general public.

Mrs Foster has been a steady pair of hands throughout the pandemic, showing a different side to her character.

A willingness to resolve the standoff with her Sinn Féin partner is a sign of how she feels her role is best served as part of a united Executive.

Ms O'Neill took a barrage of uncomfortable questions well, without resorting to defensiveness which is not an easy tone to strike. But she too will be hoping that the show of unity yesterday will finally bring and end to this crisis.

More than likely this will not be the last time she's asked a question about her attendance at Bobby Storey's funeral, but she has now done what was asked of her and what was needed to restore the public messaging at Stormont.

There is most likely a bleak winter ahead, with many more low points in this awful pandemic. The damage caused by the virus, loss of life, the damage to the economy and to the mental health of a struggling population is already evident.

The two political leaders have a job of work to do and it was always better for public confidence that they present a united front when doing so.

An uncomfortable day in the office maybe, but a very important one nonetheless.

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