The North’s First and Deputy First ministers are expected to resume joint press conferences for the first time since they were suspended following the controversy over Michelle O’Neill’s presence at the funeral of veteran republican Bobby Storey.
A meeting of the Northern Executive has been taking place on Thursday, and Ms O’Neill and Arlene Foster are expected to announce that they have approved the reintroduction of restrictions to combat the increasing number of coronavirus cases in the North.
Ms Foster had halted the briefings – which were introduced during the coronavirus pandemic to convey public health information – because she said the Executive’s message had been damaged.
However the acknowledgement by Ms O’Neill to RTÉ on Wednesday night that her presence at the funeral had undermined the public health message allowed the press conferences to resume on Thursday.
“It wasn’t my intention this would happen, but it did,” she told RTÉ. “I accept this, and I regret this is the case.”
“I accept that we have not been able to deliver clear messaging in the format that was the practice before this controversy,” Ms O’Neill said.
Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald and Ms O’Neill were among a number of senior party figures who attended the funeral of the former IRA member in west Belfast in June.
Thousands lined the streets for the funeral, which appeared to breach both social distancing guidelines and coronavirus regulations in a number of respects, including the limit on the number of people allowed inside the church for Requiem Mass and attendance at Roselawn crematorium.
After a funeral Mass at St Agnes’ church in west Belfast, the cortege proceeded to Milltown Cemetery, where the former Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams
The coffin was then taken to Roselawn Cemetery in east Belfast for cremation.
Belfast City Council later apologised to eight families who were not allowed to attend the cremation of their loved ones on the same day 30 people attended the cremation service for Mr Storey.
Ms O’Neill initially stood by her decision to attend the funeral, but subsequently apologised to families bereaved during lockdown for any hurt caused.
On Thursday she said hoped the cohesion at leadership level in the Executive can be restored for the challenges that lie ahead, and the policy of she and Ms Foster sharing a platform and making joint statements regarding Covid-19 policy issues can be restored before the winter.
Ms O’Neill was speaking ahead of a key meeting of the Northern Executive on Thursday, when ministers are expected to approve new restrictions to combat coronavirus in the North.
The DUP leader on Thursday morning responded to Ms O’Neill’s statement, saying it was “right that the deputy first minister has acknowledged the undermining of the public messaging as a result of what happened, and the deep hurt and anger that was caused as a result of Michelle O’Neill’s action.
“Those who set the rules must abide by the rules,” she said.
Mr Storey’s funeral, Ms Foster said, had “fundamentally undermined the Northern Ireland Executive’s Covid-19 rules and confused our messaging.
“The public messaging was significantly undermined as a result of the attendance at the funeral by those who make the law and regulations,” she said.
“Clearly those investigations and enquiries into the activities at the funeral which we instigated must continue and we look forward to their conclusions as soon as possible.
“Northern Ireland is facing very significant challenges as a result of the on-going Covid-19 pandemic and it is vital that as we move forward we do so on the basis that our messages are clear and that the actions of everyone in leadership do nothing to undermine the collective efforts to beat Covid-19.”
However it is not clear if joint press conferences will resume immediately.
Ms Foster had previously stipulated that she would not resume joint briefings until Ms O’Neill recognised her actions had damaged the credibility of the Executive’s public messaging.
Tánaiste Leo Varadkar, speaking in the Dáil, welcomed Ms O’Neill’s remarks.
Mr Varadkar said it her response was “late, but I think it’s timely”, as winter approached and much higher rates of the virus are expected. He said rates of Covid-19 were higher in the North, and “Belfast has a higher rate than any other city in Ireland”.
He said what happened in Milltown Cemetery was a “political rally” and not a graveside oration.
“I can understand people paying their respects in the streets but I can’t understand or accept the political rally in Milltown cemetery. This was no graveside oration. Mr Storey was cremated on the other side of town. It was a political rally in the middle of a pandemic organised by Sinn Féin and other republicans,” Mr Varadkar said.
Speaking during Leaders’ Questions, Mr Varadkar said Sinn Féin finance spokesman Pearse Doherty spoke at the rally and he asked Mr Doherty if he was going to apologise and be held accountable for that.
“We’ve seen a dozen resignations as a result of ‘Golfgate’ in the last few weeks,” he said.
“Will anyone in Sinn Fein be resigning as a consequence” of what had happened in Belfast, or did Sinn Fein believe republicans “are some sort of higher caste, that don’t have to obey the same laws as anyone else and don’t have to follow the public health guidance?” he asked.
Earlier, speaking on RTÉ’s Morning Ireland, Ms McDonald said she accepted “and by the way have accepted from the time of Bobby’s funeral that the large numbers on the streets and all that gave rise to very legitimate and very heartfelt public concern, we set that out from the get go.
“Michelle is making clear an important point, firstly her regret, and our regret that any undermining would occur to the public health messaging, and also the fact that now we need now a joined effort across the island and in the North between all of the parties on the Executive to stand on a common platform.”
This was, she said, “to ensure that the public get, not just a clear message which is essential, but the confidence that comes from a sense of common purpose amongst those who are in government.”
Asked by presenter Gavin Jennings how public health was undermined by her attendance at the funeral, Ms McDonald acknowledged the “really hard experiences” that people who had been bereaved during the pandemic had gone through. She said “the fact that a lot of people were out on the streets [at Mr Storey’s funeral]…I think that gave rise to a concern around social distancing, which is absolutely understandable.”
Asked if she would accept it had taken her a long time to acknowledge that, Ms McDonald insisted she had accepted and discussed the issues in considerable detail.
The DUP’s Upper Bann MP, Carla Lockhart, said on social media that “the consequences of their blatant disregard for the public health message is evidenced in the case count, yet sorry seems to be the hardest word.
“Breathtaking arrogance. What they expect of others they won’t do themselves.”