O'Neill 'truly sorry' that her actions at Bobby Storey funeral caused hurt

The PPS said on Tuesday that Sinn Féin elected representatives would not face action for attending the funeral of former IRA leader Bobby Storey in west Belfast last June. Credit: PA

Stormont's deputy First Minister has offered a "heartfelt and unreserved apology" to families bereaved in the pandemic for her actions in relation to her attendance at a large republican funeral.

As the Northern Ireland Assembly was recalled from Easter recess to debate a motion of censure against her, Michelle O'Neill told MLAs she was "truly sorry" for the hurt caused to those who had lost loved ones.

The Sinn Fein vice president has apologised to bereaved families on a number of occasions in the months since her attendance at the controversial funeral of former IRA leader Bobby Storey, and has also expressed regret for damage caused to Stormont's public health messaging.

However, her critics have claimed those apologies have fallen short and have not included an admission that she was wrong to attend the west Belfast funeral when strict limitations on public gatherings were in place.

In her contribution during the opening stages of Thursday's debate, Ms O'Neill did not say her attendance was wrong.

The deputy First Minister told MLAs it had never been her intention to upset grieving families.

"I wish to again say today, and to put on the public record, that I am truly sorry for the hurt that has been caused to so many families who have lost a loved one," she said.

"I am truly sorry that my actions have contributed to the grief or the heartache that has been felt and experienced by many people who've lost a loved one during this pandemic.

"That was never, ever, my intention and for that I offer my heartfelt and unreserved apology to those families that have lost a loved one."

Finance Minister Conor Murphy (Sinn Fein) also acknowledged that "hurt has been caused to many families who had to bury their loved ones during this unprecedented health crisis".

"This was never my intention nor do I believe was the intention of anyone involved in the funeral (of Bobby Storey)," he told MLAs.

"However. hurt was caused and I apologise for that unreservedly.

"Let me be absolutely clear, the law does not distinguish between one set of people and another, or one funeral and another.

"I accept and co-operated with the police investigation into these events. The PPS has now said it will review the decision it made and I await the outcome of that review.

"I accept fully the outcome of these processes, however let me reiterate here again today, that I do regret the political division that this has caused in the Assembly and to public health messaging that we worked so hard to develop as a collective and agreed response to this terrible pandemic.

"I want to say sorry to the wider community, but more particularly to apologise fully and unreservedly to those families who were hurt in any way by my actions."

MLAs returned from recess on Thursday to debate an SDLP motion criticising the actions of Ms O'Neill and Finance Minister Conor Murphy.

They were among 24 Sinn Fein elected representatives who were informed on Tuesday that they would not face action for attending the funeral.

A majority of MLAs passed the SDLP motion in an oral vote, calling for Sinn Fein to be censured over events at the funeral of Bobby Storey.

The outcome of the Stormont Assembly debate is non-binding and will have no practical consequences for Sinn Fein ministers.

The funeral saw about 2,000 mourners line the streets at a time when strict Covid-19 regulations were in place.

The Public Prosecution Service (PPS) decision not to take action has been heavily criticised by Sinn Fein's political rivals.

Opening the debate, SDLP Infrastructure Minister Nichola Mallon said it was time for the party to make an unequivocal apology.

"The arrogance of Sinn Fein and the refusal to acknowledge, explain and give a full apology brings us here today," she said.

"Enough of the word play, no more diluted, craftily worded apologies.

"I ask the leadership of Sinn Fein - let this be the day that without qualification or equivocation you do offer the people of the north a full explanation."

Winding up the debate, UUP MLA Doug Beattie noted a "most robust debate".

He said he timed Sinn Fein's contribution as four minutes of almost two hours, and said it was "just not good enough".

"We needed to hear more, we heard nothing. It was doubling down on the position you were in before we came here today," he said.

  • Our Political Editor Tracey Magee followed today's developments:

First Minister Arlene Foster has demanded the resignation of PSNI Chief Constable Simon Byrne after the PPS pointed to police engagement with the funeral planners as one reason why any prosecution would be likely to fail.

The DUP leader has also heavily criticised the director of public prosecutions, Stephen Herron, after he cited the repeatedly changing and inconsistent nature of Stormont's coronavirus regulations as another reason a prosecution would not succeed.

Addressing the Assembly on Thursday, Mrs Foster said: "Sinn Fein calls for equality, respect and integrity but actually demonstrates the opposite."

On Thursday evening, UUP leader Steve Aiken joined the calls for Mr Byrne to resign.

Mr Byrne, who has insisted he will not step down, is set to face robust questioning from members of his oversight body, the NI Policing Board, in a public meeting later on Thursday.

Stormont ministers also have a scheduled Executive meeting on Thursday.

It appears unlikely that Mrs Foster and Ms O'Neill will come together later for their weekly joint post-Executive press conference.

On Wednesday, the PPS announced a review of its non-prosecution decisions for the 24 Sinn Fein politicians.

The PPS said the move was in line with procedures and came in response to a number of requests, including one from a public representative on behalf of a member of the public.

The review will be carried out by a senior PPS lawyer who was not involved in the original decision-making process.

That lawyer will be assisted by advice from an independent senior counsel.

Thursday's events are playing out on a day when Northern Ireland took its next gradual steps out of lockdown.

Up to six people from no more than two households can now meet outdoors in a private garden.

Ten people, from no more than two households, are able to participate in outdoor sporting activities.

Golf courses can reopen, although clubhouses must remain closed.

Click-and-collect purchases are also now allowed from garden centres and plant nurseries.

  • Marc Mallett reports: