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Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill Liam McBurney via PA Images
covid restrictions

Mary Lou McDonald says Michelle O’Neill does not need to stand aside over attendance at Bobby Storey funeral

Police are investigating potential breaches of lockdown rules at the funeral.

LAST UPDATE | 2 Jul 2020

SINN FÉIN LEADER Mary Lou McDonald has said she does not believe Michelle O’Neill needs to stand aside as Deputy First Minister.

The DUP has called for O’Neill to step aside as Stormont Deputy First Minister over her attendance at senior IRA figure Bobby Storey’s funeral, which drew hundreds of people on to the streets.

First Minister and DUP leader Arlene Foster wrote to her partner in government this morning telling O’Neill to stand down pending a police and Assembly investigation into the scenes at Storey’s funeral.

The move has plunged the recently-restored powersharing institutions into crisis again, with four of the parties in the five-party coalition executive now calling for O’Neill to stand down.

On Tuesday, Foster urged O’Neill to apologise and make amends for what happened at Monday’s funeral in west Belfast.

O’Neill declined and defended her actions, insisting she acted within Covid-19 rules and guidance.

Speaking to reporters in Leinster House today, where she was announcing the party’s new frontbench, McDonald said nobody should be punished for attending the funeral of a friend. She said she attended the funeral of Bobby Storey to give a reading.

“One of the great marks of friendship and decency is how you say your goodbyes to people.”

When asked should she apologise, she said: “No, I was pleased to have the opportunity to say goodbye to a friend of mine and had Bobby died a week in advance, a week earlier I wouldn’t have been in a position to do that.”

She said in “very, very difficult circumstances… people have done their very, very best to abide by the regulations. So, in relation to Bobby Storey’s funeral. I was very, very honoured to be asked by his family to attend the mass, I was one of a very small number of people that were asked to do a reading actually at that mass.

“And there was a limited cortege, there were numbers lining the streets, but this is the problem when somebody is a public figure, or where somebody dies in very tragic circumstances, or in very difficult circumstances, people will come out to pay their respects.

“I believe that those organising the funeral did their very best to maintain social distancing and but I also know that public sentiment, when it’s somebody who is known, and admired and loved or somebody who loses their life, and in very tragic circumstances, people will come out to pay their respects. So I think there needs to be at above all else in this circumstance, absolute thought and sensitivity to the families in question.”

The DUP’s Westminster leader Jeffrey Donaldson said: “I think now is the time to step up and demonstrate respect and integrity.

The law on these matters is clear and what happened at that funeral has sent out a very, very bad message to people in Northern Ireland.

He told BBC Radio Ulster: “In light of the failure of Sinn Féin yesterday to grasp the opportunity to apologise, it is our view that the Deputy First Minister must now step back from her role while these matters are investigated by the PSNI.

“We will be asking the standards authorities in the Assembly to examine whether those MLAs who attended the funeral broke the code of conduct for MLAs, and we will also be asking the PSNI to specifically investigate any potential regulatory breaches by executive ministers including the Deputy First Minister.”

Donaldson said the DUP met this morning to agree the step.

Today, the Irish Independent reported that Ceann Comhairle Seán O Fearghaíl has been asked by Fine Gael senator Garret Ahearn to request that anyone who attended the funeral stays away from Leinster House for the next 14 days in line with public health advice. 

When asked about this at a press event earlier today, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said he thinks “it’s important that politicians try to lead by example, that we follow the rules and regulations that we make and we expect other people to make”.

“I don’t want to comment on a funeral because ultimately it was a funeral and I think we need to respect that, but I do think there was a huge contrast that we saw last Saturday where the Taoiseach Michéal Martin became Taoiseach and his family could not travel from Cork to be with him, in contrast Michelle O’Neill turned up for a photo-op.

“It does show a different attitude to public health, that Sinn Féin is different to other parties and not in a good way.”

When asked about Varadkar’s comment today, McDonald said: 

Michelle is the leader of the national party. And it was entirely appropriate that she would be in the Convention Centre for a very significant political day. But I also make the point that others from other political parties also travelled over, travelled from beyond the island of Ireland and we’re also in attendance.

Earlier today, SDLP leader Colum Eastwood also called for O’Neill to step aside and allow her actions to be examined by Assembly standards authorities.

The Ulster Unionist Party and Alliance Party have also called for her to stand down after she and senior Sinn Féin colleagues were among hundreds who gathered for Storey’s funeral.

Funeral guidance

Guidance set by the Northern Ireland Executive says a maximum of 30 people should attend a funeral, and friends should only attend when there are no family members in attendance.

Police are investigating potential breaches of lockdown rules.

O’Neill has insisted the funeral cortege was limited to 30 while social distancing inside the church was “exemplary”. It is understood more than 100 people were inside the church.

Yesterday, O’Neill acknowledged that a selfie taken at the cemetery of her posing close to two men, one of whom had his arm on her shoulder, “should not have happened”.

She said the photo happened in a “blink of an eye” as she was leaving the graveside.

embedded254372761 The funeral procession in west Belfast Liam McBurney Liam McBurney

Eastwood told Radio Ulster: “I think she should stand aside, she should refer herself to the standards authorities in the Assembly and let’s have a look at whether or not she did break the rules.

“I don’t want any more instability, I argued for three years for the Assembly to come back, but equally I don’t think that anybody should be above the law.

The point isn’t that she accidentally broke some obscure piece of guidance, she broke the guidance that she set out, that she argued for, that she stood over and made the case for, rightly and sensibly.
But then decided to set that all aside because I think, for Sinn Féin, they believe that there is one rule for them and one rule for everyone else, and that it is always movement first with them, and I think that is very hard for the public to take in.

“I couldn’t tell you how many people have contacted me furious about this, and remembering all of the sacrifices that they made during the most difficult days of this pandemic.”

Eastwood said it had been hard for him and his party not to attend the funeral of SDLP veteran John Dallat in May.

He said he and other party members felt guilty for not standing with the Dallat family at that time, but emphasised it had been the right thing to do amid the pandemic. 

- Includes reporting by Hayley Halpin and PA 

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