Regrets, insults and hurt: Arlene Foster's appearance at the UK Covid-19 inquiry

Baroness Arlene Foster resisted calls to 'use the nuclear button' and pull down the Executive over Michelle O'Neill's attendance at the funeral of the former IRA man Bobby Storey.

She told the UK Covid Inquiry sitting in Belfast that it was a moment of "maximum risk" and she had to manage her own party as well as outside factors.

The former DUP leader said she felt she had to work through the difficulties that had arisen, rather than pull her party out of the Executive.

“I felt that that was absolutely not the thing to do in the middle of a pandemic," she said. “I know there are some in my community who were wondering why I hadn’t called for the deputy first minister to resign, and I didn’t at that time.” She added: “I asked her to reflect and apologise, and I’m very glad that she has used the inquiry as a place to apologise. I think that that is the right thing to do and I’m pleased that that has happened. “But be under no illusion that that was a moment of maximum risk and I had to try and manage internally my own colleagues, and externally as well.”

Northern Ireland’s former first minister spent much of the day giving evidence.

She was questioned on her leadership, NI's preparations for the pandemic, school closures and her party colleague Edwin Poots comments on the virus being more prevalent in nationalist areas.

She also expressed “great regret” that Stormont did not anticipate the speed with which the Covid-19 pandemic spread.

By mid-March 2020, ministers had been advised the peak of the first wave was still 14 weeks away, the inquiry was told. In the event, the power-sharing administration found itself triggering the first lockdown before the end of that month.

Baroness Foster said as first minister and joint head of government she accepted her responsibility for the outcomes in Northern Ireland during the first wave, including for the outbreaks within care home settings. However, she defended her leadership of the coalition in Belfast during the pandemic. While conceding others may make a different assessment of her performance, she insisted she “tried to do the best for the people of Northern Ireland”.

The baroness was asked about one of the most controversial episodes of pandemic, in November 2020, when the DUP deployed a contentious cross-community veto mechanism to block the extension of some Covid-19 restrictions in the region. Other parties heavily criticised the use of the peace process veto tool, which was designed to protect minority interests, in the context of a health emergency. Baroness Foster said she accepted her responsibility as first minister for what unfolded during the series of meetings when the cross community vote was triggered. During evidence to the inquiry hearing in Belfast, the former first minister referred to advice given by Northern Ireland’s chief medical officer Dr Michael McBride in mid-March 2020 that the peak of the first wave was in 14 weeks away. “So, wrongly, and I say absolutely wrongly, we felt that we had time and we didn’t have time,” she told inquiry chair Baroness Hallett. “And that’s a source of great regret.” The former DUP leader was asked by lead counsel to the inquiry Clair Dobbin KC whether she felt she gave the leadership the people of Northern Ireland deserved during the pandemic. “It was probably the most difficult period of my political career,” she replied. “I think it has been set out that I’ve had a quite long political career. But I can say without any hesitation that dealing with the Covid pandemic was the most challenging, the most difficult time, and I’ve had some difficult times. “But we certainly tried, as all of the Executive I think tried to put their best foot forward to deal with the issues that were presented to them. “We had had three years without a government (during the 2017-2020 power sharing impasse). We had come back on January 11 (2020). We had a lot of things to do, because there hadn’t been a government for three years, and we were then confronted with this global pandemic coming towards us. “So it was hugely challenging. And I think all I can say in regards my own leadership, is that I certainly tried to do the best for the people of Northern Ireland recognising that I was first minister at the time.” Ms Dobbin repeated the question on whether she gave the leadership that the people deserved. “Well, I think that’s a subjective question,” responded Baroness Foster. “Other people will have particular views on whether they got the leadership they deserve. I can only answer it from my own perspective, and I certainly gave as much as I could.” She added: “From my perspective, I gave the leadership that I felt was needed at that time.” In relation to the November 2020 Executive meetings, Baroness Foster was shown text messages Dr McBride had sent afterwards – in one he suggested the politicians should “hang their heads in shame” and in another he described the events as “politics at its worst”. Baroness Foster said she was saddened by Dr McBride’s assessment. “But the chief medical officer, like all of us, was exhausted by that stage,” she added. “I think it’s fair to say he worked so diligently for the Executive and for the people of Northern Ireland right throughout this pandemic. “We had a very good relationship. It saddens me greatly to see those text messages.” She then set out her views on the backdrop and context to the meetings, as she attempted to offer an explanation. “I think we all have a responsibility to where we had got to on November 9, 10, 11, because relationships were very poor at that time,” she said. Commenting on her explanation, Ms Dobbin asked: “Is that a very long, long way of saying that you don’t bear any responsibility for what happened at that meeting?” In response, Baroness Foster said: “Not at all. I absolutely accept my position as first minister. I’m just trying to explain what the context was, why relationships were so bad at that time, and why we got ourselves into a position where the cross-community vote was triggered.” During the morning evidence session, Ms Dobbin also asked whether the former first minister accepted that she bore any responsibility for the outcomes in Northern Ireland during the first wave of the pandemic. “Yes, of course I accept responsibility. I was first minister at the time,” she said. The KC further pressed her on whether she accepted that she had joint responsibility with other ministers for the general oversight of what happened in regard to the spread of the virus in care homes. “Yes, indeed,” the baroness replied. Ms Dobbin put it to the former politician that a feature of her written statement to the inquiry was her seeking to blame “other people or other departments” for what happened during the pandemic, particularly the Department of Health. Baroness Foster rejected that characterisation of her statement. However, she pointed out that the Department of Health was the lead department in the Covid-19 response. “That’s why Michelle (then-deputy first minister Michelle O’Neill) and I looked to the health department for information in relation to the coronavirus,” she added. “So that’s not a passing of the buck, it’s just the reality that we didn’t have the information in relation to what was happening.”

Suggestion NI was ‘sleepwalking’ into pandemic is ‘offensive’

There were some testy exchanges as she was pressed at length on how prepared the region was in early 2020. She hit out at a suggestion the Executive was "sleepwalking into the pandemic".

Lead counsel to the inquiry Clair Dobbin KC asked Baroness Foster if she had been aware how depleted the civil contingencies group was in early 2020. When Baroness Foster said it was not in her first day briefing, and she had not known, Ms Dobbin pressed why she had not asked. “I should have known and it should have been brought to me. I believe that the civil servants should have brought it to me,” Baroness Foster responded. Baroness Foster said the first ministers were “probably too heavily reliant” on briefings from Health Minister Robin Swann in terms of the outset of the pandemic. Ms Dobbin pressed the former DUP leader as to “how you discharged your responsibilities to Northern Ireland as the leader of its government in respect of that pandemic during that time”.

Baroness Foster replied: “I have already answered that question”. Later in evidence Baroness Foster described the Executive as having been plunged into a “state of shock” after a “sober” briefing from the chief medical officer Sir Michael McBride at a meeting on March 2. Ministers were told the fatality rate could be 2-3%. It came shortly after the first confirmed case of Covid-19 in Northern Ireland on February 27. “He (Sir Michael) indicated that it was not like a flu, the virus was different and that was him alerting us to that fact, I think probably for the first time,” she said. “I think we were all in a state of shock. It was really a very sober assessment of where we were at.” Ms Dobbin put to her: “So alarm bells were now ringing with you?” Baroness Foster responded: “Very loudly”. Ms Dobbin said that while alarmed, she suggested at a meeting on March 10 Baroness Foster “seemed to be asking the most fundamental and basic question that could be possibly be asked by this stage – have we got plans to handle”. Baroness Foster responded: “Just because it’s a basic question doesn’t mean that shouldn’t be asked – I’ve been criticised for not asking questions and I am asking questions and I’ve been criticised for that as well”. Following further questions on preparedness, Ms Dobbin said the scene set out “might be thought to look like sleepwalking into a pandemic”. Baroness Foster responded: “I reject that. I absolutely reject that. “The idea that we would sleepwalk into a pandemic when we had had such determination to work for the people of Northern Ireland, to represent our constituents in a devolved administration and that we would expose them to this in a wilful way, it’s just offensive, frankly.” Ms Dobbin said it was “really difficult to understand why the most basic infrastructure for responding to a pandemic was not activated, even by the declaration of a pandemic from the World Health Organisation”. Baroness Foster responded: “As I said, we were receiving our information from Sage (Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies). They had indicated that we should trigger interventions ‘at the right time’. “The civil contingencies group had met on February 20, albeit it hadn’t met again, and NICCMA (Northern Ireland Central Crisis Management Arrangements) was stood up on March 16.” Row over school closures reflected very badly on Executive, Foster tells inquiry A political row over the closure of schools in Northern Ireland at the outset of the Covid-19 pandemic reflected very badly on the Stormont Executive, Baroness Foster has said. The former First Minister was pressed on the conduct of a crunch meeting of the ministerial executive on March 16 2020 when there was disagreement on whether to close schools. Lead counsel to the inquiry Clair Dobbin KC suggested it was “sad and tragic” that ministers were unable to sit down and have a “mature discussion” when it came to a really important decision about children. “I agree it’s a very bad reflection, very bad,” replied Baroness Foster. The meeting saw deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill and other Sinn Fein ministers press for the closure of schools. This was contrary to the then advice of Chief Medical Officer Dr Michael McBride who had said it was not yet the time to shut classrooms. Baroness Foster said she and other ministers knew school closures would have to come, but she said they wanted to delay that until arrangements for vulnerable children or those in receipt of free school meals had been in put in place. She told the inquiry that she believed Ms O’Neill and her colleagues broke with what had been a united executive approach up until that point because they wanted to follow the lead of the Irish government, which had announced school closures south of the border a few days earlier. Ms O’Neill insisted her change of stance was not politically motivated when she gave evidence to the Covid inquiry on Tuesday. On Wednesday, Baroness Foster was shown a message sent by then head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, Sir David Sterling, the day after the March 16 meeting in which he suggested the Executive parties were keener on points scoring than helping citizens. “It was very disappointing that the decision that we had agreed on I think a couple of days before (not to close schools) was then challenged by Sinn Fein ministers because I believe, and I know this has been refuted by the deputy First Minister, that she wanted to be in a similar position to the Republic of Ireland,” she said. “And whilst we were following what we were being told at that time, and I think doing the right thing in terms of preparing for school closures – but not at that particular point – it descended into ‘them and us’ which is very disappointing.” Baroness Foster said Ms O’Neill going public with her call for schools to close “accelerated” the number of parents deciding to take their children out of school.

Health Minister Robin Swan at COVID-19 update briefing

She said a number of schools in the Catholic education sector also announced closures after Ms O’Neill’s statements. “I think unfortunately when the deputy First Minister decided to go public with her opinion on the closure of schools, some of the schools in the Catholic Maintained sector started to close and therefore it was, to use the Minister of Education’s (Peter Weir) phrase at the time, ‘fraying around the edges’,” said the former First Minister. “I think that was regrettable because it was important that we had the plans in place to help those young people who we knew weren’t going to be back in school for a considerable length of time. “That was made clear to us that once you closed schools, schools were going to be closed for a long time. And we were very conscious of the fact that not every child has access to technology, not every child has a safe home environment, and we were concerned about that at the time.” She added: “We all were by this stage becoming very afraid. People, understandably, were keeping their children at home because they didn’t know what way the virus worked, who it impacted the most and therefore they were keeping their young people at home.”

Michelle O'Neill attendance at Bobby Storey's funeral 'hurt'

Former Northern Ireland First Minister Baroness Foster has described how she felt personally upset by the attendance of then deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill at a large-scale funeral despite lock-down restrictions.

On Tuesday while appearing at the UK Covid-19 Inquiry Ms O’Neill apologised for having attended the funeral of senior republican Bobby Storey in June 2020.

On Wednesday, Baroness Foster told the inquiry it caused difficulty in their working relationship, and left her feeling unable to stand on a joint platform with Ms O’Neill for press conferences.

Michelle O'Neill at Bobby Storey funeral as Deputy First Minister

“It was a huge disappointment and indeed caused massive damage to the Executive, to the credibility of the Executive to public messaging and was very hurtful to so many people around Northern Ireland who had stuck by what were very stringent rules around funerals and wakes,” she said.

“All of that had been prohibited and yet here was one of the people making the rules actually doing just that. It was a huge disappointment, personally I felt very upset about it all and I didn’t feel there was any credibility in going back to press conference at that time.

“The press conferences began again in September, I think at that stage Michelle had acknowledged the hurt that had been caused, I think was the phrase that was used at that time, and in particular the damage to messaging. Given where we were then going I felt it was important that we started to give those public messages again.”

No other DUP ministers agreed with Poots' claim Covid-19 was more prevalent in nationalist areas

Baroness Foster has said no other DUP ministers agreed with a claim made by former Stormont minister Edwin Poots that Covid-19 was more prevalent in nationalist areas in Northern Ireland.

The former first minister was asked about her party colleague’s controversial remarks in October 2020 as she appeared before the UK Covid-19 Inquiry on Wednesday.

Mr Poots sparked a furore when he claimed transmission rates of the virus were higher in nationalist areas than in unionist areas by a ratio of “around six to one”.

Arlene Foster with Edwin Poots.

Senior counsel to the inquiry Clair Dobbin KC asked Baroness Foster if she sought to sanction Mr Poots or stop him from making such statements.

Mr Poots was a central figure in the internal DUP revolt that effectively ousted Baroness Foster as party leader in 2021. He was subsequently elected DUP leader but his tenure proved short-lived, resigning after just 21 days in the job following another internal revolt.

“I think, given what happened later on, you will see that Edwin is very much his own person in terms of his opinions,” Baroness Foster told Ms Dobbin.

“However, it’s not a view I shared and he knew it was not a view I shared, and, indeed, it wasn’t a view shared by the other DUP ministers either.”

Foster denies 'sectarianising' Stormont’s response to the Covid-19

During her evidence Foster denied “sectarianising” Stormont’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic by deploying a controversial veto mechanism to prevent the extension of coronavirus restrictions.

She was asked about one of the most controversial episodes of pandemic, when in November 2020, the DUP deployed the cross-community veto mechanism to block a two-week extension of some Covid-19 restrictions in the region.

Other parties heavily criticised the use of the peace process veto tool, which was designed to protect minority interests, in the context of a health emergency.

Baroness Foster conceded the row over the extension of restrictions in November 2020 marked a “low point” in the Executive’s handling of the pandemic and she acknowledged the use of the cross community vote damaged public confidence.

Lead counsel to the inquiry Clair Dobbin KC asked the baroness if she accepted that the DUP’s use of the mechanism “sectarianised effectively the most pressing and critical of issues, going to the health and the life of people in Northern Ireland”.

“I don’t accept that it sectarianises it because it’s a mechanism that’s there since 1998 (Good Friday Agreement) for key decisions,” the former DUP leader replied.

“I think it was a key decision for a lot of people in Northern Ireland that we were going to take their livelihoods away again.”

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