Sinn Fein's Caral Ni Chuilin apologises over 'hurt and anger' of Covid funeral attendance

A former Sinn Féin minister has apologised to the families of Covid victims for attending the funeral of senior republican Bobby Storey in Belfast while lockdown restrictions were in place.

The Covid Inquiry has been continuing its hearings in Belfast. On Wednesday it heard for the first time from political representatives. Caral Ni Chuilin, who was Stormont’s Communities minister at the time, also said she should not have travelled to the funeral in a ministerial car. Addressing the Covid-19 Inquiry, Ms Ni Chuilin said: “I just want to take the opportunity again to apologise to the families who lost a loved one. “I am very sorry. I absolutely do see the impact and I also recognise that people were more than angry. I accept that and I really am sorry.” Asked if she accepts she should not have attended the funeral at all, Ms Ni Chuilin said: “I can see the hurt and the anger and I accept that now. Yes, I do.”

Earlier the inquiry had been told how Sinn Féin politicians attendance at the funeral in 2020 had a greater impact in undermining public confidence in lockdown restrictions than disputes between Stormont ministers.

Former DUP education minister Lord Peter Weir also said that a series of meetings in November 2020 when ministers struggled to agree on extensions to lockdown measures was not the Executive’s “brightest hour” in handling the pandemic. Lord Weir faced questioning at the inquiry about the Executive meetings at a time when the second wave of Covid had hit Northern Ireland and health chiefs had advised extending lockdown measures. However, there was disagreement among ministers over the measures and the DUP triggered a cross-community vote, effectively giving them a veto over the plan. Lead counsel for the inquiry Clair Dobbin KC asked the peer: “There was only one community in Northern Ireland for the purposes of the pandemic. Do you agree with that?” Lord Weir said: “I agree for everything there is ultimately only one (community), we are all a community of human beings. Whether that’s the pandemic or anything else. “The purpose of a cross-community vote was to try and ensure that decisions had a wide buy-in. “I think we reached a point in that November, it probably was a certain level of perfect storm, probably the frustration that we weren’t seeing the hopes that had been there from the summer had been dashed and no matter what we did, wasn’t seeming to turn back the tide (of infections). “I think we reached the point where there was a level of frustration across the board.” Ms Dobbin said: “Looking back at this, do you regret decision making about such an important issue in Northern Ireland at such a sensitive time ended up being decided in this manner?” Lord Weir said it would have been preferable if ministers had been able to reach consensus more quickly. He added: “I think there were other aspects which happened in the political sphere earlier in the year which probably had a much greater level of impact on public confidence than the events of November.” He was referring to the funeral of senior republican Bobby Storey in June 2020. The funeral sparked political controversy after then deputy first minister Michelle O’Neill and other Sinn Féin ministers attended despite lockdown restrictions being in place limiting gatherings. Ms Dobbin said: “The point you would make is that the deputy first minister’s attendance at the Storey funeral, you regard that as having had an impact on public confidence?” Lord Weir said: “From the basis that people look to what example is produced by those who are giving the laws, and if they see a level of divergence from that… people come to a conclusion is it one rule for them, meaning the political class, and is it another rule for the people? “That was a much greater level of undermining of public confidence than what happened in November. “Those two or three days (in November) were a very difficult period. “They were not the brightest hour in the Executive’s handling of things. “I wish it hadn’t developed the way it had.”

Peter Weir at the Covid Inquiry in Belfast.

SF ministers had ‘one eye towards’ Dublin over Covid schools closure – Weir Sinn Féin ministers acted with “one eye towards” Dublin when considering whether schools in Northern Ireland should close in the early months of the Covid pandemic, Lord Peter Weir has said. A barrister for the UK Covid-19 Inquiry asked the former DUP education minister how “well served children in Northern Ireland were” when the decision over whether to close schools had become “a political and divisive issue”. Lord Weir said he “regretted” that the debate had created political division. He also told how he was caught by surprise by the decision in Ireland to shut schools, which he said was a “pivotal moment” in determining what the response would be north of the border. Lead counsel for the inquiry Clair Dobbin KC asked Lord Weir when it became a “serious prospect” that schools in Northern Ireland would have to close as infections spread in the early months of the pandemic. He said: “I think as things moved on into March (2020), probably the pivotal point where it became a strong possibility was around 12th of March when there was action by the Republic of Ireland in terms of closing their schools. “We weren’t really given a heads up that that was going to happen. I think I learned about it during a school visit on the 12th of March.” Ms Dobbin said: “Should the inquiry proceed on the basis that it was the closure of schools in the Republic of Ireland that meant that you gave serious contemplation to that being a realistic prospect in Northern Ireland?” The former DUP minister said discussions had already occurred but it was decided it was not the appropriate time. He added: “There were concerns raised over what the impact within a wider context would be of school closures.” The peer said his department was not given clarity about the Irish decision. He added: “They had obviously taken a sovereign decision that that was the best course of action at that particular time. “Our responsibility was to try and decide what was the most appropriate action in Northern Ireland.” Referring to discussions among Executive ministers at that time, Ms Dobbin said: “Would it be right to characterise the discussion about schools as having effectively become politicised in that some ministers were of the view that the decision ought to follow because it had been done in the Republic of Ireland?” Lord Weir said it did create a “level of division” within the Executive. He added: “I took the view that we should be following the medical advice and the science. “I think that particularly Sinn Fein ministers and the SDLP minister first of all looked to see things with one eye towards what was happening in the Republic “That was part of a political or constitutional point of view. “I suspect there was also a little bit of an element that there would have been a particular level of antipathy for ministers in that party towards the UK Government, particularly a (Boris) Johnson-led Conservative Government. “It was a situation where not only did they want to follow the Republic but they were having natural inclinations not to follow what was happening in London.” Lord Weir said there was an Executive decision taken based on advice from chief medical officer Sir Michael McBride that it was the “wrong time” to close schools in Northern Ireland following the decision in Dublin. He added: “Within 24 hours of that the deputy First Minister (Michelle O’Neill) did a press conference where she said effectively (her) position it is the time schools should be closing.” “I think that is where there was a particular level of friction.” Ms Dobbin said: “There might be a question if one looks at the note of this (Executive) meeting as to how well served children in Northern Ireland were by the position that was being taken by the politicians? “When it came to the decision to close schools it seems to have become a political and divisive issue?” Lord Weir said: “I regret that it became that.” Former Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced on March 18 that all schools in England should close. A similar announcement was then made in Northern Ireland. Ms Dobbin asked: “Was the Prime Minister’s announcement the decider for what was going to happen in Northern Ireland?” Lord Weir said: “I think the decider was we were then getting clear advice from CMO (chief medical officer), CSA (chief scientific adviser) that this was the appropriate time to take this particular action. “There was a potential practical way forward. “This was something that needed to be done in Northern Ireland and it was doable at that stage.”