Ulster Unionist MLA Doug Beattie has rounded on Sinn Fein for contributing for just four minutes to a two-hour debate in the Assembly on the Bobby Storey funeral Covid breaches.
He said that the party’s attitude was “just not good enough” and when the public needed to hear more, they “heard nothing” but a “doubling down” on previous positions.
There were angry and emotional contributions from MLAs across the political divide as the Assembly held an emergency meeting and approved a motion of censure against Sinn Fein following the PPS decision not to prosecute anyone for the funeral breaches.
Mr Beattie accused the party of promoting the idea that it was “above everybody else, having privileges we do not”. Addressing Michelle O’Neill and Conor Murphy, he said: “You are the Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, you are our Finance Minister.
“You have shown no integrity, no moral courage, no compassion, no understanding for the people you tell us you represent.
“Claw back your compassion, your integrity, your moral authority. Apologise, and then resign.”
Mr Beattie said that rank-and-file PSNI officers couldn’t be blamed for not enforcing the regulations at the funeral, but senior commanders faced serious questions.
They should have told Sinn Fein, “you know what, you see that Milltown eulogy, it’s not acceptable, it’s not happening”.
The UUP MLA said that serious criticism of Chief Constable Simon Byrne was justified: “He is the head of a police force like no other. This is not Kent, this is not the Midlands, this is Northern Ireland.”
Ms O’Neill and Mr Murphy both said they were truly sorry for any hurt caused to bereaved families by their actions.
SDLP Infrastructure Minister Nichola Mallon rejected the idea that Sinn Fein had been confused by the coronavirus regulations. She said: “It wasn’t surrounded in ambiguity, there wasn’t a slight question mark over whether public health advice, guidelines and legislation were broken. Please don’t let us hear that today. It is an insult to the bereaved across Northern Ireland.”
Alliance MLA Kellie Armstrong said Sinn Fein had deliberately decided to give Bobby Storey a “state funeral” while ordinary families obeyed the rules.
“My aunt was one of the many people who saw her husband go into hospital, only to never come out, to never have a wake, to have a closed casket, to only have a few people by her side as he was laid to rest,” she said.
“I come from a large family, we are extremely close, we wanted to be there for her, to pay our respects to him. We couldn’t, we stuck to the rules, we didn’t find a loophole.”
DUP MLA Alex Easton said that had he broken the rules as a unionist politician, he would have been “arrested by the PSNI, taken to court and charged, and asked to resign by my party – I would have been hung, drawn and quartered”.
Mr Easton said that while Ms O’Neill was photographed in Milltown Cemetery with a man’s arm around her shoulder, “some people haven’t hugged their mother in a year”. He added: “Sinn Fein are treating my community, and the Assembly, like dirt.”
DUP MLA Paul Givan accused the Deputy First Minister’s party of a “supremacist attitude” which was infecting the political institutions. His colleague Christopher Stalford said: “With Sinn Fein, it’s not the people, not the health service, not the economy – it’s the movement that always comes first.”
Ms O’Neill said: “Over the past nine months, I have worked tirelessly to rebuild trust and confidence with the public as a result of undermining the public health message. I am truly sorry that my actions have contributed to the grief or heartache that has been felt and experienced by many people who have lost a loved one during this pandemic. That was never, ever my intention.”
Mr Murphy acknowledged that hurt and the political division that had been caused. “I want to say sorry to the wider community, but more particularly to apologise fully and unreservedly to those families hurt in any way by my actions,” he said.
SDLP MLA Dolores Kelly said her party had made the sacrifices when John Hume died: “We buried someone who won the Nobel Peace Prize. We buried John Dallat, a man who gave his whole life to public service, without any political elitism or trappings.”
People Before Profit’s Gerry Carroll compared the PSNI response to the Storey funeral with that to the Black Lives Matter protest.
Independent unionist Claire Sugden said: “It leads me to the belief that if you had the choice to attend another funeral in similar circumstances, you would do it again. It is your job to know the regulations. If you’re claiming ignorance, then you’re also admitting incompetence,” she said.
Arlene Foster said Bobby Storey’s wake and funeral, and the Milltown rally, were “clear and premeditated breaches of the Covid regulations”. She added: “Once again, the message from Sinn Fein was clear – ourselves alone, ourselves first regardless of the cost of undermining public health messaging.”
DUP MLA Jonathan Buckley questioned the actions of PSNI Assistant Chief Constable Alan Todd. He asked whether it was “ACC Todd or ACC Gerry Kelly who was in control because it certainly wasn’t law enforcement”.