The North’s First and Deputy First ministers resumed joint press conferences on Thursday for the first time since they were halted following the controversy over Michelle O’Neill’s presence at the funeral of veteran republican Bobby Storey.
Standing alongside her partner in government, Arlene Foster, at the podiums at Stormont for the first time in more than two months, Ms O’Neill used her opening remarks to address the “commentary and speculation around these press conferences and when they might return”.
Using language similar to that of a statement to RTÉ on Wednesday night, which paved the way for the resumption of the joint briefings less than 24 hours later, Ms O’Neill said “I do accept the public messaging about the pandemic has been undermined by the controversy over the last number of months.
“It was never my intention that that would happen, but it did, and I regret that.
“So I want to rebuild trust with the public, as we have the most challenging times ahead of us on many levels in the coming weeks and months and we must work together for the common good,” she said.
Ms O’Neill and the Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald were among a number of senior party figures who attended Mr Storey’s funeral in west Belfast in June.
Thousands lined the streets for the ceremony, 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, an oration by former Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams at Milltown Cemetery, and the presence of 30 people at a service at Roselawn crematorium.
Questioned by reporters over her presence at Mr Storey’s funeral, Ms O’Neill said she was “very much on the record” that it was “never my intention to cause or compound” the hurt of anyone who had lost loved ones during the pandemic.
But she also played down the impact of the hiatus, saying “the absence of a press conference didn’t mean we weren’t communicating a public message, we certainly were, and I’m glad that we’re here today communicating it together”.
Ms Foster too appeared keen to move on from the controversy and to focus on delivering the public health message, which on Thursday evening was the announcement of fresh restrictions in Belfast and other parts of Co Antrim to try and limit the rising number of coronavirus cases in the North.
She said she had been on the record that she believed Ms O’Neill’s actions had undermined their public messaging but “there has been an acknowledgement and regret for what happened at that time and I acknowledge that”.
Referring to investigations by the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) and Police Ombudsman, she said “the other investigations continue and will continue, and we will have an outcome in relation to that”.
However, in the Dáil, there was a chorus of criticism from political parties about what they portrayed as a volte face from Sinn Féin, with several claiming the party’s approach to the funeral had been hypocritical.
Tánaiste Leo Varadkar asked if anyone in Sinn Féin would resign as others had done arising from the so-called “golfgate” episode.
“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: “We’ve seen a dozen resignations as a result of ‘golfgate’ in the last few weeks. Will anyone in Sinn Féin be resigning as a consequence?”
Fianna Fáil TD Jim O’Callaghan said Sinn Féin had “belatedly recognised the inappropriateness of their senior political leaders knowingly being part of a densely populated crowd at a funeral during the height of the pandemic.”
He said that calling on other politicians to resign for breaching public health guidelines was “sheer hypocrisy if Sinn Féin leaders are happy to breach them themselves.”
Jed Nash of the Labour Party said the apology took “three months longer than it ought to”.
He said the apology did not include the “flocking into Belfast of masses of party supporters from across the island of Ireland, an act which could have put families and communities across the country at serious risk.
Earlier Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald said she had accepted “from the get-go” that large crowds on the street gave rise to very legitimate public concern.
She denied it had taken the party a long time to acknowledge this. She said the party was very conscious of the experiences of people who were bereaved in circumstances that were a “cruel experience”.
“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, Ms McDonald 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.”
Fine Gael TD Jennifer Carroll-McNeill contended Sinn Féin had yet to make a “Dublin apology” for the attendance of her and the party leadership at the event.