Bobby Storey funeral: MLAs debate motion calling for O’Neill apology

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NI Assembly

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Michelle O’Neill faced a barrage of criticism during the debate but defended her actions

Northern Ireland assembly members are debating a motion which calls for the deputy first minister and the finance minister to apologise for attending the funeral of IRA man Bobby Storey.

Michelle O’Neill and Conor Murphy deny breaching social-distancing guidance in attending the service on 30 June.

Opening the debate, DUP MLA Christopher Stalford said Ms O’Neill’s credibility was now “shot to bits”.

Sinn Féin has described the criticism as “political point-scoring”.

John O’Dowd said there was “blatant hypocrisy” from some assembly members, while his Sinn Féin colleague Órlaithí Flynn said some people had forgotten that Mr Storey’s family was grieving.

Speaking for the Alliance Party, Kellie Armstrong said an apology for the ministers’ attendance would not be enough and she does not believe people can trust executive messaging again on Covid-19 because of their actions.

Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) leader Steve Aiken told the chamber if Northern Ireland was a “normal democracy” the ministers would have “done the decent thing and resigned”.

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Sinn Féin’s leader Mary Lou McDonald, left, and deputy leader Michelle O’Neill attended, along with former leader Gerry Adams (centre)

Daniel McCrossan said assembly members had to practise “what we preach”.

The SDLP assembly member added that his party had wanted to pay a bigger tribute to long-standing MLA John Dallat, who died in May, but chose not to because of the coronavirus guidance.

He said to many people there was a “hierarchy of pain”.

‘Damage to executive’

Meanwhile, Belfast City Council has strongly denied allegations 61 people attended Mr Storey’s cremation.

The claim was made by UUP Belfast city councillor Jim Rodgers.

On Tuesday, the council apologised over how it dealt with Mr Storey’s family at Roselawn Crematorium compared to other families, including allowing 30 people to attend.

In a statement issued on Tuesday evening, the DUP’s group on the council called for an independent investigation into the events.

“The lack of transparency around these events has undermined public confidence in the workings of the council which we cannot tolerate,” they said.

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A large number of mourners turned out for the funeral last week

Ms O’Neill has apologised “for grieving families experiencing more hurt” following her attendance at the funeral.

She was part of the funeral cortege, attended the Requiem Mass and was present for an oration at Milltown Cemetery, but is not believed to have been present for the cremation at Roselawn.

Mrs Long told the BBC’s Good Morning Ulster programme: “We recognise and we welcome the fact that Michelle O’Neill has acknowledged that hurt has been caused to those who had to say their farewells to their loved ones in a very different manner.

“She has yet to acknowledge the harm that has been done to the reputation of the executive and to her own standing.

“I hope there will be some acknowledgement of the damage that has been done.”

The assembly motion acknowledges the sacrifices people have made during the Covid-19 emergency and pays tribute to those who selflessly prioritised the need to keep each other safe, particularly during times of trauma, loss and grief.

Sinn Féin’s Martina Anderson said her party would oppose Tuesday’s motion and repeated Ms O’Neill’s assertion that criticism of Sinn Féin’s conduct at the funeral was “political point-scoring”.

“It cannot be business as usual”. So said Arlene Foster rejecting Michelle O’Neill’s non-apology.

The deputy first minister expressed her sorrow if anyone felt hurt by the TV pictures of her and the rest of the Sinn Féin leadership paying farewell en masse to their friend and comrade, IRA veteran Bobby Storey.

But Ms O’Neill didn’t admit to any breach of the coronavirus regulations. Other Stormont leaders don’t buy that.

They continue to argue the funeral amounted to a mass gathering in defiance of the guidelines which were operable on the day it took place.

So if it isn’t “business as usual”, how do you describe the current state of the Northern Ireland Executive?

All sides to this row are adamant there is no threat to the existence of the institutions.

The prevailing view is that the public would not forgive our politicians if they took a fit of pique, only six months after restoring Stormont and with the Covid-19 virus temporarily dormant but still highly dangerous.

Read more from Mark here.

On Tuesday, Ms O’Neill rejected accusations Sinn Féin was “more equal than others” when it came to following the coronavirus regulations.

“I breathe equality every day, I bring it into every aspect of my work,” said Ms O’Neill.

During questions to the executive office, Traditional Unionist Voice leader Jim Allister said: “How can the minister talk about equality when she and her friends think they are more equal than others and they have the right to break laws they make?

“Would it not be a good start to subject yourself equally under the law?”

At Mr Storey’s funeral, a number of pallbearers were pictured carrying his coffin, including former Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams and North Belfast MLA Gerry Kelly.

New guidance on funerals makes it clear that coffin lifts are not recommended unless all pallbearers are from the same household.

It says “it is unlikely that pallbearers would be able to maintain a 2m distance from each other, and such practices should not be permitted”.

The Department of Health said the advice applied to all funerals, regardless of the cause of death.

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