Michelle O’Neill has undermined the Executive’s message on coronavirus restrictions and must take responsibility for her actions, the First Minister has said.
Arlene Foster said last night that Sinn Fein’s “mask of integrity, respect and equality has well and truly slipped” after the Deputy First Minister refused to apologise for attending Bobby Storey’s funeral along with hundreds of others.
Sinn Fein’s four Executive partners are backing a motion which calls for an explanation from the republican party’s ministers who attended last week’s funeral for the IRA veteran.
Mrs Foster said it would “send a clear signal that there cannot be a toleration for double standards. There are not two sets of rules”.
“While it is deeply frustrating that too much of our time has been diverted to deal with rule breaches by the very people who have helped to make the rules we must never forget that responsible and law abiding people have never used the Sinn Fein ‘standard’ as their yardstick previously and must not do so now,” she said.
She added: “The Deputy First Minister and her Sinn Fein colleagues must take responsibility for the health regulations being undermined. Their actions have undermined the authority and messaging of the Executive on Covid 19.”
The DUP leader said it “makes no difference if you are a unionist or a committed Irish republican, the Covid-19 regulations are for the protection of health and life and must be adhered to”.
“We are all frustrated and deeply disappointed by recent events. Sinn Fein stand isolated and without support because of their selfish and arrogant behaviour. The mask of integrity, respect and equality has well and truly slipped.”
Alliance leader and Stormont Justice Minister Naomi Long urged Ms O’Neill to offer the Assembly an explanation for her attendance at the funeral which drew hundreds of onlookers who lined the streets of west Belfast as the cortège passed through.
Ms Long told the BBC’s Sunday Politics: “Of all the things we’ve asked people to do, watching your loved ones make their final journey alone or almost alone has been the most difficult.
“I know that we’re dealing with grieving families, and I include in that Bobby Storey’s family, so we need to tread lightly on these issues but it is important that if you make the rules, you are seen to keep those rules.
“It’s about confidence between the public and the Executive in terms of the things we may have to ask them to do again later this year if there is a second spike and will they treat the advice and regulations with the same respect that they had to date.
“I hope they do but we need acknowledgement of that from Michelle and an apology for the damage done.”#
High-ranking republicans — several of whom had served prison sentences for IRA-related offences — took prominent roles at the funeral, including at one point carrying the coffin.
Among them were former Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams, MLA Gerry Kelly, Sean Hughes, Sean ‘Spike’ Murray, Martin ‘Duckster’ Lynch and Martin Ferris, a former TD. Lynch was jailed for 10 years in 1982 after being caught with a rocket launcher, machine-gun, pistol and ammunition.
Hughes was named in the House of Commons under parliamentary privilege as having had involvement in bombings in London, and has had property previously targeted by the Serious Organised Crime Agency, while Spike Murray was jailed in 1982 for 12 years for explosives offences. Other prominent republicans at Storey’s funeral included Padraic Wilson — who was once the IRA’s leader in the Maze Prison.
He was jailed for 24 years in 1991 when he was caught in possession of a bomb.
The massive farewell for Storey that brought west Belfast to a standstill quickly sparked a political storm at Stormont after the apparent disregard for restrictions on funerals and outdoor gatherings.
It intensified when it emerged that the IRA leader’s remains were not actually interred at Milltown Cemetery, where crowds had gathered to hear speeches from high profile Sinn Fein figures, but were driven across the city to Roselawn cemetery for cremation.
Leaders of every party in the Executive outside Sinn Fein have called on the Deputy First Minister to step aside from her post to allow an independent investigation to proceed into alleged breaches of social distancing and public health guidelines at the funeral.
Mrs O’Neill has insisted she acted within the rules in respect of all events that were within her control, such as the size of the cortege and the numbers attending inside St Agnes’ Church, in west Belfast where the funeral service took place.
She said she was sorry if families grieving for those lost during the lockdown had experienced hurt. But she added: “I will never apologise for attending the funeral of my friend”.