Northern Ireland news

Michelle O'Neill says strength of Stormont executive public health message not diluted by Storey funeral row

Michelle O'Neill said it was not her intention to cause hurt to those who lost relatives when coronavirus restrictions were in place

MICHELLE O'Neill has insisted the Northern Ireland Executive's response to the coronavirus pandemic was unhindered by the row over her attendance at Bobby Storey's funeral in June.

The deputy first minister was speaking as she joined First Minister Arlene Foster in presenting the Stormont leaders' first press conference since the controversy fractured relations at the heart of the power-sharing executive ten weeks ago.

Ms O'Neill yesterday acknowledged for the first time that joining senior Sinn Féin figures and thousands of mourners at the west Belfast funeral had undermined public health messaging on Covid-19.

In a statement to RTÉ, she said: "It wasn't my intention this would happen, but it did, I accept this and I regret this is the case.

"I accept that we have not been able to deliver clear messaging in the format that was the practice before this controversy."

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Ahead of yesterday's joint press conference, during which a series of coronavirus restrictions for specific areas in the north were announced, Mrs Foster said it was right that the deputy first minister acknowledged the undermining of public messaging by her attendance at the funeral.

She said Ms O'Neill's actions had caused "deep hurt and anger".

"Those who set the rules must abide by the rules," she said, before noting that a police investigation into potential breaches of coronavirus guidelines was continuing.

Fielding questions from journalists via video link, both Stormont leaders appeared keen not to dwell on the controversy. However, while Ms O'Neill again acknowledged a number of times that public messaging had been undermined, she declined to say that she would apologise for her actions.

"I am glad we are standing here on this platform today at a crucial time in the fightback against Covid-19," she said.

"We need to chart our way through what is going to be a very difficult winter."

The Mid Ulster MLA said it was not her intention to cause hurt to those who lost relatives when coronavirus restrictions were in place.

Quizzed on whether the absence of a joint press conference had diluted the effectiveness of the executive's public health message, Ms O'Neill said it had not.

"We were still out delivering the exact same message; we still worked our way through this period in a joined up way and we were still very aligned in the executive around the approach we needed to take," she said.

"The absence of a press conference didn't mean we weren't communicating a public message – we certainly were and I'm glad we're here today delivering that message."

Mrs Foster said she had made her feelings on the matter known on a number of occasions over the past two months.

"I think Michelle was aware of how I felt about that issue," she said.

Ulster Unionist health spokesman Alan Chambers described the deputy first minister's statement as "carefully crafted".

"It has taken the Sinn Féin deputy leader 72 days to even acknowledge the damage that she and her colleagues have done to the public health message by Sinn Féin's blatant breaching of coronavirus guidelines at Bobby Storey`s funeral, whilst other bereaved families abided by both the letter and spirit of the regulations and guidelines – and still no proper apology," he said.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin welcomed Ms O'Neill's statement, saying Sinn Féin had been in denial over the episode.

"It should have happened earlier but it has happened and I welcome it," he said.

Tanaiste Leo Varadkar called on Sinn Féin Donegal TD Pearse Doherty to apologise for attending the funeral.

Speaking in the Dáil, he said: "While I can understand people paying their respects in the streets, I can't understand or accept the political rally in Milltown cemetery.

"This was no graveside oration. Mr Storey was cremated on the other side of town."

Mr Doherty did not acknowledge his comments, which prompted Mr Varadkar to suggest a debate on the incident.

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