Stormont’s deputy First Minister has offered a “heartfelt and unreserved apology” to families bereaved in the pandemic for her actions in relation to her attendance at a large republican funeral.
As the Northern Ireland Assembly was recalled from Easter recess to debate a motion of censure against her, Michelle O’Neill told MLAs she was “truly sorry” for the hurt caused to those who had lost loved ones.
Finance Minister Conor Murphy, who also attended the funeral of Bobby Storey last June, apologised “fully and unreservedly to those families who were hurt in any way by my actions”.
Speaking in the debate, First Minister Arlene Foster accused Sinn Fein of “clear and premeditated breaches of the Covid regulations” at the funeral.
Referring to the decision earlier this week not to pursue prosecution against 24 members of Sinn Fein who attended the funeral, Mrs Foster added: “There is a rightful expectation of everyone that the police and the justice system show that they are not above the law.”
SDLP deputy leader Nichola Mallon opened the debate, urging Sinn Fein to make an unequivocal apology, while in closing UUP MLA Doug Beattie said Sinn Fein had contributed just four minutes to the two-hour debate, which he slammed as “just not good enough”.
Mr Beattie also urged Ms O’Neill and Mr Murphy to make “fulsome apologies” and resign.
MLAs passed the motion by oral vote, however the outcome will have no practical consequences for Sinn Fein ministers.
Ms O’Neill has apologised to bereaved families on a number of occasions in the months since her attendance at the controversial funeral of former IRA leader Storey, and has also expressed regret for damage caused to Stormont’s public health messaging.
However, her critics have claimed those apologies have fallen short and have not included an admission that she was wrong to attend the west Belfast funeral when strict limitations on public gatherings were in place.
In her contribution during the opening stages of Thursday’s debate, Ms O’Neill did not say her attendance was wrong.
The deputy First Minister told MLAs it had never been her intention to upset grieving families.
“I am truly sorry that my actions have contributed to the grief or the heartache that has been felt and experienced by many people who’ve lost a loved one during this pandemic,” she said.
“That was never, ever, my intention and for that I offer my heartfelt and unreserved apology to those families that have lost a loved one.”
MLAs returned from recess on Thursday to debate the SDLP motion criticising the actions of Ms O’Neill and Mr Murphy.
They were among 24 Sinn Fein elected representatives who were informed on Tuesday that they would not face action for attending the funeral.
The funeral saw about 2,000 mourners line the streets at a time when strict Covid-19 regulations were in place, prompting claims that Sinn Fein had flouted rules it was involved in creating.
The Public Prosecution Service (PPS) decision not to take action has been heavily criticised by Sinn Fein’s political rivals.
Mrs Foster has demanded the resignation of PSNI Chief Constable Simon Byrne after the PPS pointed to police engagement with the funeral planners as one reason why any prosecution would be likely to fail.
The DUP leader has also heavily criticised the director of public prosecutions, Stephen Herron, after he cited the repeatedly changing and inconsistent nature of Stormont’s coronavirus regulations as another reason a prosecution would not succeed.
Addressing the Assembly on Thursday, Mrs Foster said: “Sinn Fein calls for equality, respect and integrity but actually demonstrates the opposite.”
On Thursday evening, UUP leader Steve Aiken joined the calls for Mr Byrne to resign.
The police handling of the funeral is set to be examined by the UK policing watchdog, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary.
Mr Byrne, who has insisted he will not step down, faced robust questioning from members of his oversight body, the NI Policing Board, in a public meeting on Thursday.
He welcomed the review as “as an independent body to come in and help us get an objective understanding of what went on”.
Stormont ministers also took part in an Executive meeting on Thursday.
Mrs Foster and Ms O’Neill did not come together for the weekly joint post-Executive press conference.
On Wednesday, the PPS announced a review of its non-prosecution decisions for the 24 Sinn Fein politicians.
The PPS said the move was in line with procedures and came in response to a number of requests, including one from a public representative on behalf of a member of the public.
The review will be carried out by a senior PPS lawyer who was not involved in the original decision-making process.
That lawyer will be assisted by advice from an independent senior counsel.
Thursday’s events played out on a day when Northern Ireland took its next gradual steps out of lockdown.
All pupils will return to school after Easter.
Up to six people from no more than two households can now meet outdoors in a private garden.
Ten people, from no more than two households, are able to participate in outdoor sporting activities.
Golf courses can reopen, although clubhouses must remain closed.
Click-and-collect purchases are also now allowed from all non-essential retailers.
The Executive also agreed to reopen some outdoor non-essential retail including car retailers, motor home and caravan dealers, agricultural retailers, garden centres and car washes.
The limit of 25 people at marriages, civil partnerships and funerals will also be lifted from 12 April.
Instead the number of people permitted will be up to individual venues and will depend on how many they can accommodate safely.
Up to four people will be allowed to view wedding venues.
All of the measures will come into effect from April 12.
Meanwhile, no further deaths of people who had previously tested positive for Covid-19 were reported by the Department of Health on Thursday.
Another 107 confirmed cases of the virus were recorded in the past 24-hour reporting period.
On Thursday morning, there were 112 Covid-positive confirmed inpatients in hospital, of whom 17 were in ICUs.