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Tom Kelly

If Michelle O'Neill had any sense, she would take Arlene Foster's advice and offer a profuse apology, but don't hold your breath

Tom Kelly


DUP will feign dismay with Sinn Fein, but will muddle through to keep the Executive on track, writes Tom Kelly

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Michelle O’Neill poses for a selfie with two mourners at Bobby Storey’s funeral. Photo: PA

Michelle O’Neill poses for a selfie with two mourners at Bobby Storey’s funeral. Photo: PA

PA

People line the road for Bobby Storey’s funeral procession. Photo by Kevin Scott for Belfast Telegraph

People line the road for Bobby Storey’s funeral procession. Photo by Kevin Scott for Belfast Telegraph

Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph

The Deputy First Minister wearing a face visor

The Deputy First Minister wearing a face visor

Michelle O’Neill poses for a selfie with two mourners at Bobby Storey’s funeral. Photo: PA

When Micheal Martin made his acceptance speech as Taoiseach in Dail Eireann, he did so in the absence of his wife and family. They did not travel from Cork, because they were observing the travel restrictions in the Republic of Ireland: only essential travel and no further than 20km, or within your own county.

Watching the coverage, I caught sight of the Deputy First Minister for Northern Ireland, Michelle O'Neill. She was far away from her home in Tyrone, or from Stormont. Was her decision to travel essential? Unlikely.

Ms O'Neill had no role in the proceedings at the Convention Centre, or a vote in the process for the election of the Taoiseach. She posed for photographs with the Sinn Fein president, Mary Lou McDonald, and another colleague, Pearse Doherty.

Ms O'Neill seems fond of photo-opportunities. Deputy McDonald fell victim to coronavirus and spent a period of time in quarantine and self-isolation. She broadcast from her home on a regular basis, passionately urging the public to stay safe, self-isolate and not to make any unnecessary journeys. Ms O'Neill may have missed these podcasts.

One assumes the new leader of the Opposition in the Dail is familiar with the travel restrictions and rules imposed on her fellow citizens in the Republic of Ireland.

The Sinn Fein president is well aware that a photocall with her Northern Ireland colleague does not constitute "essential business".

Ms O'Neill breached the travel rules in place for the Republic of Ireland and also the spirit of the rules in place in the north. A minor breach, perhaps. Not one that many people would notice. So, she got away with it: that's Sinn Fein; they make their own rules.

Except Ms O'Neill is not a private citizen, or just a member of Sinn Fein. She is the Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland and, as such, is co-steering, with the First Minister, Arlene Foster, the Government response to the Covid-19 pandemic. She has been making the rules which the public are obliged to follow.

Therefore, it is not unreasonable for the same public to expect O'Neill to comply with those same rules, too.

In fact, it goes further than that: Ms O'Neill has been the most entrenched politician in Northern Ireland against relaxing the rules, or observances, since this whole crisis started. And in that she was right.

But she does not get to choose which rules she follows and those she sets aside.

The funeral of the late Bobby Storey was not the first breach of social distancing at republican funerals. Though it must be noted that the funerals of two DUP stalwarts and fathers of prominent DUP politicians were private and largely compliant with health guidelines.

This is not to make any comment on the deceased, other than he was a senior former member of the IRA. Apart from that, he was a private citizen with a family who now mourn his loss.

Past membership of the IRA (or any other organisation in Northern Ireland) does not come with exemptions to public health and safety rules.

It was natural and inevitable that the deceased's comrades and colleagues would want to pay their respects.

But the leadership of Sinn Fein now hold public office in both parts of Ireland and they have much wider obligations to the public.

There is more than an expectation that they demonstrate civic leadership by personal commitment to good practice, especially during a pandemic, They chose not to.

Sinn Fein members who wanted to show respect to the deceased could have done so, like the rest of us, who have family and friends who recently passed away, via social media, or by letter. They chose not to.

They could have used their expansive social media network to ask their members and the public to follow guidelines on mass gatherings and stay away from the funeral. They chose not to.

Sinn Fein, as an organisation, could have arranged a memorial service to celebrate the life of the deceased at a later stage. They chose not to.

Instead, they chose to ignore health guidelines. They chose to plan for a grandiose funeral. They chose to facilitate a large crowd. They chose to walk in procession, for the most part without wearing masks, despite the large gathering.

They chose options which made social distancing practically impossible. They chose to breach even the church guidelines for attendance at a funeral service. Sinn Fein chose to take control. This - and the fallout from the event - lies at the door of Connolly House.

When so many are making huge sacrifices to protect and shield those in the most vulnerable age-category from coronavirus, it was bizarre in the extreme to witness so many septuagenarian Sinn Fein politicians in close proximity without either masks, or gloves.

What credibility has Ms O'Neill in asking the public to wear face masks in the future?

Politicians in government rule as much by moral authority as they do by legal authority. Lose moral authority and the bond of trust between government and the public breaks down.

Ms O'Neill's defence - and that of her colleagues - is almost Dominic Cummings-esque. And she almost got away with it, too, except for those selfies taken at the funeral, hugging other people present.

Ms O'Neill can hug comrades, but members of the public can't hug parents and grandparents can't hug their grandkids. Another "do as I say, not as I do" rule for the Deputy First Minister.

Both the Ulster Unionists and Alliance have called on Ms O'Neill to consider her position. This won't do much for harmony around the Executive table, which is already strained by the marginalisation of the three minority parties by Sinn Fein and the DUP.

But Ms O'Neill is unlikely to resign. Arlene Foster has stopped short of calling on Michelle O'Neill to stand aside and has merely asked to her apologise.

Ms O'Neill showed much less generosity when Mrs Foster was under pressure in 2017. Then, Ms O'Neill said: "If Arlene Foster has any sense of the outrage and anger in the public, then she will step aside."

Another example of Sinn Fein setting standards for others, but ignoring any which apply to their performance in public life.

The general public, as opposed to a majority of Sinn Fein supporters, are truly outraged at what they see. But outrage alone is no longer enough to force a resignation.

The DUP will feign dismay at their Executive partners, but will muddle through with Sinn Fein to keep the Executive going.

If Michelle O'Neill had any nous, she would immediately heed Arlene Foster's advice and offer an abject apology. She can always wash her hands afterwards.

Belfast Telegraph