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Arlene Foster: Michelle O’Neill funeral apology ‘falls short’

UK News | Published:

Trust between the powersharing partners has been damaged by the controversy over large crowds at Bobby Storey’s funeral, the DUP leader said.

Stormont First Minister Arlene Foster has said her powersharing partner’s apology after attending a republican funeral “falls short”.

Trust between members of the Stormont coalition and Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill’s credibility in delivering Covid-19 health messaging have been damaged by the controversy over large crowds at Bobby Storey’s funeral, the DUP leader said.

Ms O’Neill has stood by her decision to go to this week’s west Belfast service for the senior republican but did say sorry to families bereaved during lockdown for any hurt caused by scenes of hundreds of people lining the route.

Mrs Foster said: “Regrettably, the role of the Deputy First Minister in causing that hurt has not been acknowledged today.

“I think it falls short of that.

“I regret that that is the case.”

Ms O’Neill is facing calls from the other four parties in the five-party Executive at Stormont to stand down from her role as joint head of government pending police and Assembly standards investigations into the scenes on Tuesday.

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She and party colleagues have been accused of flouting the Covid-19 regulations and guidance they helped to set.

Mr Storey was a former IRA figure who supported Sinn Fein’s leadership during the peace process.

Mrs Foster said she would be speaking further to other party leaders to try to address the controversy.

She added: “It is important that we try and rebuild that trust that has been lost.

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“Unfortunately, the credibility of that messaging has been badly damaged over this past week.”

The order of service for the funeral of senior Irish Republican and former leading IRA figure Bobby Storey
The order of service for the funeral of Bobby Storey (Liam McBurney/PA)

Ms O’Neill insisted she acted within the rules in respect of all the things that were within her control, such as the size of the cortege and the numbers attending inside St Agnes’ Church.

“I will never apologise for attending the funeral of my friend,” she added.

The Sinn Fein vice-president acknowledged some families had been left upset.

“I am also concerned that those grieving families are experiencing more hurt over recent days,” she said.

“I am sorry for that.”

She added: “I would never set out to hurt any family or compound their grief at such a sad time.

“In terms of my attendance at the funeral, I am confident I can stand over the fact I worked within the guidelines and I worked within the regulations in terms of attending a requiem mass, which was allowed, and also to walk in a funeral cortege of up to 30 people.”

The leaders of the five main Executive parties at Stormont met on Friday morning in an effort to resolve the row.

Outdoor gatherings are restricted to 30 people in Northern Ireland.

Ms O’Neill has insisted Mr Storey’s funeral cortege complied with that rule and the numbers who lined the streets to watch it pass were outside the control of organisers.

Bobby Storey funeral
Mrs Foster reiterated her demand that the deputy first minister step aside while police investigate possible social distancing breaches at the funeral (Liam McBurney/PA)

Mrs Foster reiterated her demand that the deputy first minister step aside while police investigate possible social-distancing breaches at the funeral.

The first minister said: “There was no recognition of any wrongdoing or recognition that there was a problem, no recognition that the credibility of the (Stormont ministerial) Executive has been damaged.

“We need to recognise that there is a problem and try to deal with the problem.”

Ulster Unionist leader Steve Aiken and nationalist SDLP leader Colum Eastwood, who participated in “robust” exchanges between Stormont chiefs on Friday, said Ms O’Neill’s remarks did not go far enough.

They rejected her claim that she stuck to the rules, insisting there were clear breaches.

Bobby Storey funeral
Mr Storey’s family did attend Tuesday’s service (Liam McBurney/PA)

Under Stormont regulations and guidance still displayed on official websites this week, friends of the deceased should only attend the funeral if none of the bereaved family members are attending.

Mr Storey’s family did attend Tuesday’s service.

While guidance around general church services was updated this week to allow congregations to return, with numbers dependent on the size of the church, there is dispute on whether this applied to funerals.

Some churches have insisted they were advised the guidance did not include Requiem Mass when it came into force on Monday.

The Diocese of Down and Connor, which has responsibility for St Agnes’ church where the service took place, said its policy on Tuesday remained a limit of 10 people.

At a Stormont press conference on Friday afternoon, Ms O’Neill suggested there had been a “lack of understanding” on behalf of the clergy.

Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald has said she wanted to apologise to anyone who was hurt by the sight of crowds gathering.

Two more Covid-19-linked deaths have been reported in Northern Ireland, bringing the overall total to 554.

Another four people tested positive, official figures show, with the number of confirmed cases of the virus now 5,747.

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