Northern Ireland First Minister O'Neill apologises for Storey funeral attendance during pandemic

Northern Ireland's First Minister Michelle O'Neill has apologised for attending the funeral of former IRA man Bobby Storey during Coronavirus pandemic restrictions.

She once said she would never apologise for "attending the funeral of her friend" however, on Tuesday during her evidence to the Covid Inquiry sitting in Belfast she said she wanted to make it clear she was sorry for having gone and the pain and anguish that caused many people.

During her appearance the First Minister covered a wide range of topics, including the leadership of the Northern Ireland Government, the closure of schools and differences in approaches between Northern Ireland and the Republic as well as persistent leaks to the media and her deletion of crucial material on her devices.

In 2020, the then-deputy First Minister and a number of Sinn Féin ministers attended the funeral of senior republican Bobby Storey in west Belfast when there were restrictions on social gatherings.

Large crowds gathered on the streets for the send-off of Bobby Storey which sparked controversy at the time. The UK Covid-19 Inquiry has heard evidence that it chilled relations within the Executive. This included the ending of the joint Covid-19 press conferences with Ms O’Neill and the then First Minister Arlene Foster.

Giving evidence to the inquiry on Monday, Health Minister Robin Swann suggested it contributed to the public losing confidence in the Executive.

Ms O'Neill said her actions "compounded the hurt" of those families who lost loved ones during the pandemic.

“I know that my actions also angered the families and for that I’m truly sorry. I am sorry for going and I’m sorry for the harm that’s been caused after [it],” she told the Covid-19 Inquiry.

Asked if she realised the anger that going to the funeral would cause, she said: “I didn’t but I ought to have. “I’ve said it publicly on a number of occasions about how sorry I am and I am absolutely, from the bottom of my heart, sorry. “I do accept wholeheartedly that I in some way damaged our Executive relations with colleagues who had been working very hard with me the whole way through, and I also accept wholeheartedly that I damaged the public health messaging and I had work to do to regain that.”

Thousands attended the funeral of Bobby Storey.

Ms O'Neill was the deputy First Minister when in June 2020 she and other Executive ministers from her party attended the funeral of the veteran IRA man, despite restrictions on such gatherings.

Inquiry chair Baroness Hallett put to Ms O’Neill that her criticisms of former prime minister Boris Johnson and allegations of lockdown parties at Downing Street were “hypocritical”. Ms O’Neill responded: “I don’t think so because they are two very different things in terms of the Boris Johnson approach of partying the whole way through the pandemic and drinking their way through it, to be quite blunt.” Baroness Hallett said: “We didn’t find out about the partying until after the pandemic, what you did was to do something the normal bereaved couldn’t do because you wanted to go to a friend’s funeral. Isn’t saying that what Boris Johnson’s government did was wrong sort of hypocritical?” “No, I don’t think so because what I did I did under the understanding of the regulations at that time. “But I do accept wholeheartedly that I in some way damaged our Executive relations with colleagues who had been working very hard with me the whole way through. “I also accept wholeheartedly that I damaged the public health messaging, and I had work to do to regain that. But I did that, I worked hard to regain that trust and confidence and to lead us for the next year and a half through the pandemic.”

Baroness Hallett said she was pressing because “the point of principle is that those who set the rules should obey the rules, both in spirit and in the letter”.

Ms O’Neill: “Yes, I should have anticipated the outworking of what I did.” She added that she attended the funeral on a personal invitation, with a cortege of 30 people. “That’s the basis on which I attended but I am sorry, I am sorry. I should have anticipated what would happen in the aftermath and that is why I worked hard to try to regain that confidence and trust,” she said. “Equally and more importantly, I think it’s about all the families of bereaved and people who went through horrific circumstance and the experience that they’ve had. It’s just horrendous and I would never set out to try to compound that or in any way make it more difficult for them to deal with their grief.” Asked about an answer she gave at the start of Tuesday’s Covid-19 inquiry hearing that she did provide the leadership that the people of Northern Ireland deserved during the Covid-19 pandemic, Michelle O’Neill added that she “didn’t say everything was perfect all of the time”. “I do believe that I did lead from the front the whole way through the pandemic, as did all of my Executive colleagues,” she told the inquiry. “I do believe that I learned the whole way through, albeit I put my hands up (on attending the Storey funeral), because that took away from all of the work that I had to put into trying to lead us through the pandemic, which was hard on everybody, right across society.”

In April 2021, Ms O’Neill offered a “heartfelt and unreserved apology” to families bereaved in the pandemic for her actions in relation to attending the funeral. It came when the Assembly was recalled from Easter recess to debate a motion of censure against her. Ms O’Neill told MLAs she was “truly sorry” for the hurt caused to those who had lost loved ones. However, Ms O’Neill was then criticised for her apology not including an admission that she had been wrong to attend the funeral when strict limitations on public gatherings were in place.

O’Neill ‘accepts’ she should have kept WhatsApp data for Covid inquiry Michelle O’Neill has accepted she should have kept WhatsApp exchanges for the Covid-19 Inquiry rather than wiping her phone. The inquiry previously heard that a number of government-issued devices allocated to ministers were reset. It was told that former first minister Arlene Foster returned her phone after leaving office in July 2021 and it was restored to factory settings by IT staff. Ms O’Neill, who was deputy first minister between 2020 and 2022, was issued with a mobile phone and iPad. The inquiry heard those were wiped before they were returned in February 2022. Ms O’Neill was questioned about this action and the guidance she had received on retaining records for the inquiry. Lead counsel to the inquiry Clair Dobbin KC said retrieved WhatsApp exchanges between Ms O’Neill and Baroness Foster “do discuss substantive matters about the response to the pandemic”. Ms O’Neill responded: “They may have been a to and fro in a conversation outside a meeting but the official record was the official record in terms of decisions made. “Arlene and I couldn’t decide on a message to do something, we’d have to bring it to the Executive. So all decisions were recorded on the official record and in terms of what the civil service hold.” Ms O’Neill said she had been agriculture minister and health minister previously, and she believed current Justice Minister Naomi Long had the same approach because of sensitive information. Ms Dobbin said Ms O’Neill’s statement to the inquiry suggests she used messages for logistical matters but not about the response to the pandemic. The counsel pressed the First Minister over whether that was correct. Ms O’Neill said the statement was “referring to be able to understand that everything is recorded in terms of decisions on the official record”, adding: “I’m happy to correct that if you think that that’s appropriate.” Ms Dobbin referred to a discussion about Covid restriction fines in a message between Ms O’Neill and Baroness Foster. She asked Ms O’Neill: “These are certainly not just administrative matters are they, or fixing dates for meetings?” Ms O’Neill said: “No, you’re right there. They are an exchange around issues but they will not be the formal record of any decision that will be made.” Ms Dobbin said the duty to record is not just confined to a formal record. Ms O’Neill said: “I can accept that … I can reflect that even though I understood that to be the the way in which to do things in terms of my previous experiences as a minister, obviously it would be much more fulsome if I had these records to give to you.” Ms Dobbin pressed Ms O’Neill about being informed of her obligations to the inquiry in terms of retaining all evidence by the head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, Jayne Brady. Ms O’Neill said: “I accept that I should have kept my additional exchanges, in particular with Arlene, and anything else that was relevant. “I thought that I did, but clearly I didn’t.” Ms O’Neill said there was “clearly a misunderstanding on my part in terms of informal communication and what that meant”. “By and large, I am satisfied that the vast, vast majority of everything that I communicated was on the device and hopefully on the official record, but I concede that my understanding of the WhatsApp and informal communication is not at where it should have been,” she said. Ms Dobbin said Ms O’Neill “might be satisfied, but this inquiry doesn’t have the chance to be satisfied about what’s contained on your device”.

Leaks ’caused deep sense of frustration’ at Stormont during Covid, says O’Neill

The continual leaking of Stormont Executive business during the coronavirus pandemic created a “deep sense of frustration” for the coalition’s leaders, Michelle O’Neill has said. The First Minister, who was deputy first minister throughout the Covid-19 emergency, said the content of conversations inside Executive meetings were often tweeted out by media outlets in real time. She said that lack of confidentiality presented a “huge challenge” for the devolved administration throughout the pandemic and it complicated the decision-making process around restrictions. Ms O’Neill said she and then first minister Arlene Foster made efforts to halt the leaks. However, she said a Department of Finance investigation to try to identify the source or sources did not yield any results. Giving evidence to the UK Covid-19 Inquiry in Belfast, the Sinn Féin vice president said: “I can say it was a deep sense of frustration for both myself and Arlene whenever it came to chairing Executive meetings that they ended up being rehearsed on the media before we even had a chance to take papers into the room for discussion. “So, I certainly did not have any practice whatsoever of leaking documents. But we frequently would have read reports of an ongoing meeting on social media whilst we were discussing things. “I think we tried at one stage to get to the bottom of this. I think there was the Department of Finance look, a deep dive, to try to see if they could get to the bottom of this. I don’t think we were successful at that time.” Ms O’Neill said the issue became more pronounced when meetings went from in-person encounters at Stormont to online discussions – some of which often involved up to 40 participants when special advisers and support staff were factored in. “I don’t know where it came from, but it shouldn’t have happened, and it did make our job more difficult the whole way through,” she added. Ms O’Neill said the leaks became more prevalent during some of the most tense and difficult times of the pandemic, when ministers were wrestling with significant choices on lockdown measures. “A lot of information seemed to find its way into the public, which really just didn’t help us to be able to arrive at a good position and also find consensus on positions, particularly because things were in the public space and parties or ministers were being asked to comment on different views of different things and then it just made things more complicated, more difficult,” said Ms O’Neill. She added: “I think myself and Arlene went to great pains to try to advise people, to encourage them not to be engaged in leaking, that this was making all of our jobs more difficult, that it was forcing people into taking positions before they were properly interrogated or considered further. “So it was a huge challenge for us for sure and it did endure.” Ms O’Neill said a source of particular frustration for her and Ms Foster was Department of Health papers on the pandemic being leaked to the media before either of them had had sight of them. She said that had led to instances where they were being questioned by the media on the contents of the papers without having seen them.

Michelle O'Neill attends the Covid Inquiry in Belfast. Credit: PA

Confidence in Executive shaken when schools in Ireland closed in 2020 – O’Neill

An announcement of school closures in the Irish Republic in March 2020 when schools in Northern Ireland remained open shook public confidence, Michelle O’Neill has said. Ms O’Neill, who served as deputy first minister during the coronavirus pandemic, also blasted the Irish government for not telling Stormont in advance. Stormont followed advice from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) which changed to recommend the closure of schools later in March. The UK Covid-19 Inquiry has heard of a fractious Executive meeting in March during which Ms O’Neill expressed concern that they had lost control of the situation.

Giving evidence to the inquiry sitting in Belfast on Tuesday, Ms O’Neill said she was baffled that their advice around schools could be so different on either sides of the border. She said the Irish government moving to school closures “precipitated a whole new set of circumstances”, and criticised Dublin for not telling Stormont about it as “not good enough”, and that it “put us all in a very difficult spot”. “We live in a small island, two jurisdictions back to back, and particularly in relation to the issue of schools closure. Parents in Strabane couldn’t understand why parents in Lifford weren’t sending their children to school,” she said. “It just didn’t compute in people’s minds, so much so that I just couldn’t understand it and I tried to understand from within the Executive, I tried to ask the CMO (chief medical officer) about the difference of advice. “I wasn’t privy to what the advice was in Dublin. If Dublin were wrong, and were at different junctures throughout the pandemic, I would say that, if London were right, I would say that. “But where I think something’s not right, either way, I feel obliged that I would have to articulate that but I think that on the issue of schools. This was the first big issue that the public witnessed and experienced and people were afraid, and they couldn’t fathom how our advice could be different.” The inquiry heard that Ms O’Neill issued a public statement on March 12 saying Northern Ireland was not at the stage of needing to close schools, but on March 13 issued a statement as Sinn Fein vice president calling for the immediate closure of schools. “In 24 hours, a lot had changed … we had lost the wider public, they were taking the children out of schools. The Catholic bishops had came out and asked for all schools to close their doors,” she said. “We were very, very quickly rapidly descending into an unmanaged school closure. It was much much better to do it in a managed way and that was why I felt obliged to speak out, and I couldn’t get that concerted agreement, that joined-up effort and agreement in the Executive itself, because the CMO had advised that we were not in the position to move to this juncture yet. “I tried everything that I could to try to get people onto that right position where I thought … unfortunately, we couldn’t get to that juncture. “It’s not ideal. But it was the only way in which I could try to influence the decision. “I felt like lives could be lost if we didn’t take this decision so I felt like that having not been able to secure what I tried to secure within (the Executive). “Does my statement add to confusion? Yes, of course. Do I believe it was the right thing to do? Yes, I do because I felt like we had lost people. “In that 24 hours we were actually committing to remove the children from schools, schools were shutting down, even education authorities like CCMS (Council for Catholic Maintained Schools) were telling schools to close.”

I did not play politics during pandemic – O’Neill

At the beginning of the hearing, Ms O'Neill denied "absolutley," "playing politics" during the pandemic. Asked if she felt she gave good leadership to Northern Ireland with then First Minister Arlene Foster during the pandemic, Ms O’Neill said she did. Ms O’Neill was shown a tense WhatsApp message exchange with Baroness Foster dated March 21 2020. Baroness Foster tells Ms O’Neill in the exchange that she felt her “public undermining of Robin (Swann) was totally uncalled for”. “If you want to effect change in a policy you are going completely the wrong way about it. You are playing politics when things are much too serious. “It is hugely disappointing but unfortunately I’m not surprised.”

Ms O’Neill responded in the exchange: “It’s too serious to tolerate. Lives will be lost. Start listening.” Baroness Foster went on to query whether Ms O’Neill was “calling two of your ministerial colleagues incompetent”, adding “Naomi (Long) and Robin (Swann) have both raised concerns about your behaviour”, and urged her to be “more collegiate”. Ms O’Neill responded: “The department is not serving Robin. We are not being served well by the civil service. This is a time to knock head and to get them to act with haste. Our nurses are crying out for help to do their jobs. I spoke to many from the western trust area over this week and they need us to fight for them.”Lead counsel to the inquiry Clair Dobbin KC put to Ms O’Neill the accusation of playing politics. Ms O’Neill said she “absolutely” rejects that she played politics over Covid-19 measures. She also pointed out the exchange came in the context of disagreement within the Executive around the closure of schools. “As I said, I refute the allegation of playing politics, this was about what I thought was the right thing to do,” she told the inquiry. She said that she was “trying to find consensus around the Executive table” around issues such as school closures. Responding to exchanges between her and Baroness Foster, Ms O’Neill said: “We had a difference of approach, that’s not politicking, [it’s] about what’s the right way and what’s the wrong way. “As I said, I refute the allegation of playing politics, this was about what I thought was the right thing to do.”

'A harrowing time to be a decision maker'

Michelle O’Neill has said that Stormont’s Department of Health had been “following a Boris Johnson approach that was too slow to act”. The Sinn Féin vice president told the Covid Inquiry on Tuesday that in hindsight Northern Ireland’s Government was too reliant on the Department of Health in the early days to lead the response to the coronavirus pandemic. She said that Health Minister Robin Swann “did his very best” and that he, his officials and the Department of Health were “all trying their best in unprecedented times”. She said: “It was a harrowing time for any decision-maker, to be quite frank.” Asked whether this was revisionism, Ms O’Neill said “I don’t think that that is revisionism at all, I think that Robin had a very, very difficult job to do, he himself has indicated that we worked well together. “It’s also incumbent upon me as a leader, when you talk about my leadership responsibilities, when something is not right to call it out. That’s not politics, that’s just the difference between what I think is right and wrong. “I did believe in those early days that the Department of Health here were following a Boris Johnson approach that was too slow to act, and I still stand over that position. “Would it have been preferable to be able to iron these things out within the Executive? Yes, of course it would have been. Do I wish that we had been able to do that? Yes, absolutely. Do I regret that we couldn’t? Yes, absolutely.”

Meanwhile, former finance minister Conor Murphy has been excused from giving evidence at a public hearing of the Covid-19 Inquiry on medical grounds. Lead counsel to the inquiry Clair Dobbins KC said they had been informed that he’s “undergone further medical treatment and that he’s been advised that he should rest for two weeks, pending further advice”. “We would respectfully request that his witness statement is published on the inquiry website after this hearing has concluded,” Ms Dobbins said, adding that they would return later to consider whether they would need to hear from Mr Murphy “at a later date”.

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