Northern Ireland news

Pressure remains on Edwin Poots ahead of Executive meeting

Agriculture minister Edwin Poots. Picture by Kelvin Boyes/Press Eye

PRESSURE remains on Edwin Poots to retract his claims about Covid-19 in nationalist communities, with Sinn Féin last night continuing to raise questions about his role in the Executive.

Despite Arlene Foster breaking her silence on the controversy and attempting to bring it to a close, it appears Mr Poots' efforts to clarify his explosive remarks have fallen short of demands.

The agriculture minister, who last week claimed coronavirus cases in nationalist areas outnumbered those in unionist areas by "six-to-one", yesterday issued a statement in which he blamed Sinn Féin for attempting to "twist and distort" what he said.

The Lagan Valley MLA denied linking the spread of Covid-19 to religion, saying it was "deeply regrettable that such a narrative has been created".

"It is obvious such spread is related to behavioural issues nothing more nothing less," he said, adding that "I cherish my Catholic friends and neighbours".

"I would never intentionally use words that would cause them offence," Mr Poots said.

Read More: Analysis: Arlene Foster's failure to debunk Edwin Poots' amateur epidemiology may come back to bite her

"Covid-19 is spread by bad behaviour such as that exemplified at the Bobby Storey funeral."

Mrs Foster welcomed what she termed her colleague's "clarification", adding that it was time to "move forward and look at the bigger picture".

Read More: Arlene Foster breaks silence on Edwin Poots's Covid claims but opponents greet clarification with scepticism

But the fallout from the controversial remarks will today linger over what is expected to be a tense meeting of the Stormont executive, with Mr Poots and business leaders having also questioned new Covid restrictions.

Fellow executive minister Naomi Long last night urged Mr Poots to "quit this divisive nonsense and apologise".

"Prejudice is prejudice," she tweeted.

"You can't wriggle out of it on a technicality – certainly not on the old 'some of my best friends are' chestnut."

Sinn Féin's John O'Dowd said the public had made up their own minds about what the DUP minister meant.

"It’s simply unacceptable to bring sectarianism into this public health emergency, or into our politics at any time," he said.

"If any minister around the Executive table is incapable of this, they simply should not be there."

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