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The DUP was clearly waiting to get O'Neill in the long grass

Andree Murphy


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Sinn Fein's Michelle O'Neill at the funeral of Bobby Storey

Sinn Fein's Michelle O'Neill at the funeral of Bobby Storey

Philip Magowan / PressEye

Sinn Fein's Michelle O'Neill at the funeral of Bobby Storey

Michelle O'Neill is at the heart of a politicking storm that has been surprisingly fierce given the issues at its heart.

Whether fairly or not, for many in the DUP O'Neill has been a figure of blame and synonymous with DUP sore moments since 2017. More recently the DUP has been smarting because its first instincts on Covid-19 was to follow London's pandemic response until it became clear that we reside on an island and our best protections (whisper it softly) were to act as an island.

So this week Bobby Storey's funeral seems to have created an opportunity for payback as things got heated very quickly and calls emerged from DUP MPs for O'Neill to step aside.

O'Neill was always going to attend the funeral of Storey. And Storey's funeral was always going to be a huge event. For modern republicans, he has been the political talisman for the development of republicanism, a valued IRA leader, who promoted the peace process and persuaded hundreds upon hundreds of republicans to follow the path to politics.

For many republicans this "crisis" seems convenient and contrived. For them it feels like more a discomfort at the funeral of a republican leader. Or a knee-jerk at a well-organised funeral of such a leader. They ask the question: is this really about the funeral, or whose funeral it was?

After all, hadn't Garda Colm Horkan received a State funeral in Co Mayo only two weeks ago? Haven't politicians from most parties mingled in crowds at vigils and other funerals recently?

Every move O'Neill made, attending the funeral as a grieving friend of Storey and not as joint First Minister, appears to have been commented on. Shaking hands with the brother of Storey, who has Down's syndrome, posing in a selfie photo with two men, all met with tuts and disapproval.

Finding a way to express genuine outrage over alleged broken restrictions, rather than convenient politically opportune hyperbole, is proving tricky. And that conflation of issues only hardens attitudes.

Ultimately, this heated storm could well be laying bare some truths the pandemic has hidden to date, including a critical political antipathy between the Executive partners. An antipathy so deep that trust, and fruitful relationships, are nearly impossible.

It may well be that pandemic-hidden internal DUP challenges to Arlene Foster are being exposed as the MP rearguard heads up the calls of "crisis" and makes her wriggle room very small. The leaders' meeting may prove useful to discuss simmering tensions, but only if the public point-scoring ends and commitments to powersharing are re-established.

Andree Murphy is a political commentator

Belfast Telegraph