‘Missing’ notes from key 2020 Stormont Executive meeting handed to Covid inquiry

This report contains some strong language.

A set of notes from a key meeting of the Stormont executive believed to be missing has been handed to the UK Covid-19 Inquiry. The handwritten notes related to a meeting of the executive on July 2, 2020 which was the first meeting of ministers following the funeral of senior republican Bobby Storey. The funeral sparked political controversy after then deputy first minister Michelle O’Neill and other Sinn Fein ministers attended despite lockdown restrictions being in place limiting gatherings.

Earlier this week, the former head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service (NICS) Sir David Sterling told the inquiry there was a “discernible chill” between then first minister Arlene Foster and Ms O’Neill following the funeral. At the start of the inquiry hearing on Friday morning, counsel to the inquiry Clair Dobbin KC revealed that the notes from the July 2 meeting had now been located by The Executive Office (TEO).

David Sterling attending the Covid Inquiry in Belfast.

Previously the inquiry had been told the notes were not held. Ms Dobbin said the inquiry was approached by the TEO following opening statements to say “in fact they had the minutes of the July 2 meeting”, and that officials were “surprised” as they believed the notes had been supplied to the inquiry. She outlined efforts that had been made by the inquiry to obtain those notes and follow-up queries around missing materials. Ms Dobbin said the inquiry “set out to The Executive Office that these handwritten notes cover a period of significant interest to the inquiry and it’s plainly of concern if these are in fact missing”.

Notes on ministers' attendance at the Bobby Storey funeral had been lost.

She added: “It suffices to say that despite those notes having been found, and despite the sheer number of requests having been made, despite the fact that the TEO in fact told the inquiry that those notes weren’t held, and despite the very specific questions that the inquiry asked about the precise circumstances in which notes like this could go missing, they weren’t provided until after the opening had been given.” Inquiry chairwoman Baroness Hallett said she was “very concerned” about what she had heard, and will consider whether her team will pursue it further. “It’s not a very happy picture,” she added. The current head of the NICS, Jayne Brady, was asked about the matter when she appeared before the inquiry on Friday afternoon.

Ms Brady, who took up office in September 2021, was asked by Ms Dobbin whether there is a wider issue within the Executive Office around disclosure, referring also to the wiping of some devices belonging to ministers. Ms Brady responded: “I can see how the pattern of events compounds to draw those characteristics”. She expressed concern at the fullness of the disclosure around the July 2 meeting, why notes were lost and why it took so long to be provided. “I wasn’t aware of the lack of disclosure of that item until you addressed that on Tuesday,” she said, adding that she has asked for an investigation to be carried out. “There will be many questions which will have to be asked about the late providing of information, the rationale why that was provided late and how this builds into the overall perspective of what we’re trying to achieve in fulfilling our objectives, our commitments and our code of ethics around openness and transparency. “There are many areas of concern that have been raised through this process as well.” Ms Brady was also questioned about the wiping of devices that were assigned to ministers. She said she had issued a number of communications to staff around the importance of retaining records for the inquiry. She said she discovered that the First and deputy First ministers’ phones had been wiped in August 2022 and commenced an investigation into the extent of the data loss. The inquiry heard that Ms Foster returned her issued mobile phone when she left office in July 2021 and it was restored to factory settings by IT. Her successor Paul Givan returned his mobile phone when he left office in February 2022. An official said they could not recall if it was reset immediately. Ms O’Neill was issued with a mobile phone and iPad. The inquiry heard those were wiped before they were returned in February 2022. Ms Brady said there appeared to have been a “disconnect” with staff in terms of their perception of the level of information that met the requirements to be disclosed. “I think that’s been characteristic of the engagements they would have had, very regrettably, with the inquiry in terms of fulsomeness of the information that has been provided, which to me was very clear in coming into post, but did not appear to be clear within departments,” she said. “I think there was a view that that was regarding decision-making and the formal record, versus everything that is pertinent to the work of governance, the context for a decision.” Ms Brady said “vast swathes” of information have been provided to the inquiry from civil servants and some of the ministers. “The system failed to look at the collective responsibility as part of that to give effect to the legal guidance,” she added. Inquiry chair Baroness Hallett asked: “So they (devices) were wiped without anyone checking that the material had been recorded elsewhere?” Ms Brady responded: “Yes, that’s my understanding”. Ms Dobbin put to Ms Brady that WhatsApp communications that the inquiry has in terms of Northern Ireland “do appear to discuss official business”, adding: “There’s a little bit of social chat in them, but in fact in large part, they’re very firmly on the business side”. Ms Brady responded: “Yes.” She also expressed deep regret that the issues are similar to those raised during the Renewable Heat Incentive Inquiry seven years ago. She added: “It’s a significant issue that we have failed to address adequately in providing this to the inquiry, but also more broadly in terms of the obligations under the Freedom of Information Act. “What this has shone a light on is… all the vulnerabilities within the system. “You have identified many different reports and policies but actually all of them have shown to have failed in this scenario to get the information and I think that’s of deep regret for the service, for Northern Ireland but also to get the information for the bereaved families and the information that they deserve for the learnings of that. “It is a matter of deep regret.” The inquiry heard that a minute of a meeting between officials preparing material to be disclosed in May had 13 amendments, and the final version contained an abbreviated reference to what happened to the devices. Ms Brady said: “They have indicated that they changed the reference or reduced the reference… that they were not aware of the full information and they were seeking to get further information. “In my view, it materially changes the substance of the meeting.” The UK-wide inquiry arrived in Northern Ireland on Tuesday for three weeks of hearings in Belfast. It is set to look in depth at the decisions taken in Northern Ireland. This module will investigate the initial response, central government decision-making, political and Civil Service performance as well as the effectiveness of relationships with governments in the devolved administrations and local and voluntary sectors. It will also assess decisions behind lockdowns and other non-pharmaceutical interventions.

Moving Health Minister Robin Swann wasn’t being contemplated, inquiry told

The suggestion of a ministerial reshuffle, moving Health Minister Robin Swann, “wasn’t being contemplated”, the Covid-19 Inquiry has heard. A senior civil servant described it as “very much a snapshot of how difficult things were at that time”, as a recently reformed Stormont Executive dealt with the start of the pandemic in Northern Ireland. Earlier this week the inquiry heard a ministerial reshuffle was suggested after then deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill, and to a lesser extent then First Minister Arlene Foster, expressed frustration with the Department of Health. A tranche of evidence documents was published by the inquiry on its website on Wednesday. In an email exchange between civil servants in March 2020, then head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, Sir David Sterling, noted Ms O’Neill’s frustration at “having little power or influence over the health service”. He wrote that Ms Foster recognised the operational independence of the health minister but was also “frustrated at the lack of information” coming out of the Department of Health and “frequent surprises”, such as an announcement about hospital visits ending. Sir David also said he felt the first ministers were concerned that they would be held corporately responsible if the handling of the pandemic went wrong. A senior official in the Department of Finance at the time, Hugh Widdis, suggested a “ministerial reshuffle”, with a view to a health minister from Sinn Fein or the DUP, the two largest parties in Northern Ireland, to which Ms O’Neill and Ms Foster respectively belonged. “There would be more radical options but I presume that they aren’t palatable eg: asking Robin to take a different portfolio for the duration (they would have to make a tempting offer) and putting a SF or DUP Minister in? Or causing d’Hondt to be run again,” he wrote in the email exchange. There were also other suggestions such as developing an emergency programme for government, or creating “an all-Exec overarching Covid strategy” which the first and deputy first ministers “can lead and own”. Mr Swann remained in place as health minister throughout the pandemic, and in January 2024 resumed the role with the re-establishment of devolved government. On Thursday, Ulster Unionist Party leader Doug Beattie expressed his concern at the disclosure, and said he intended to write to the current head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, Jayne Brady, about it. On Friday, Karen Pearson, an official at the Executive Office who was part of the email chain, was asked about the suggestion during her evidence to the inquiry. Ms Pearson said that as Sir David had noted in his evidence, that period was “difficult”, with the closure of schools. “He does then go on to say I think, when he was in here, things got better,” she said. “So I think this is very much a snapshot of how difficult things were at that time. “Had it reached the point where any of this was being contemplated? No, I don’t think so. “And with respect to Hugh, who I’ve known for a long, long time, I don’t think he was making any firm suggestions. I think he was setting out, if they wanted to take control, these are some constitutional options. “I don’t think it’s the job of civil servants, nor do I think Hugh personally, would be making a suggestion about the removal of a minister.” She added: “I think, and this is a personal view, it’s impossible to stop being a politician when that’s your job and you’re elected. “So you go into an Executive and you’re bringing your views and your politics with you. “Here even more so than anywhere else, having to compromise all the time is almost the structure that’s built into the system, but you can occasionally fall back into very different view points, which is what I think caused this email exchange. “I don’t think we can expect them to entirely leave their party political views at the door, but beyond this point I think we were seeing huge efforts at compromise all the time and on an ongoing basis.” Inquiry chairwoman Baroness Hallett said: “Can I just challenge that, in time of a national emergency when people are dying, can’t we expect politicians to leave their party politics behind and think of the people that are suffering and dying, or am I being unrealistic?” Ms Pearson said: “I am not suggesting that what I said about party political views means that they’re not caring about the people. “The concern about the virus, the impact on people, the health outcomes, and that unfortunately people were going to lose loved ones, that was absolutely top of their priorities. “What I’m suggesting is, they’re going to come at things from angles, but having that fundamental core objective of making this better was there. “I have absolutely no doubt about that in my mind.”

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