Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill will not step aside as Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland “under any circumstances” despite facing criticism for attending an IRA funeral
The DUP demanded Ms O’Neil quit over her decision to attend Bobby Storey’s funeral, which drew hundreds of people to the streets, complaining it was a breach of social distancing rules.
But Sinn Fein said the event was held in line with the family’s wishes and Ms O’Neill argued that mourners were socially distanced
Now four of the five parties in the five-party coalition have joined demands for her to quit – throwing the recently-restored power sharing government into crisis.
The devolved government broke down in 2017 when Mrs Foster refused to accede to a Sinn Fein call for her to stand down pending an investigation into a botched green energy scheme and was only reinstated earlier this year.
On Tuesday, Ms Foster urged O’Neil to apologise and make amends for what happened at Monday’s funeral in west Belfast.
The Deputy First Minister declined and defended her actions, insisting she acted within Covid-19 rules and guidance.
A Sinn Fein spokesman said: Michelle O’Neil will not be stepping aside as Deputy First Minister under any circumstances.”
DUP MP Jeffrey Donaldson described the coronavirus regulations as “clear”, adding what happened at Mr Storey’s funeral “sent out a very, very bad message to people in Northern Ireland”.
He told the BBC: “We will be asking the standards authorities in the Assembly to examine whether those MLAs [Members of the Legislative Assembly] who attended the funeral broke the code of conduct for MLAs, and we will also be asking the PSNI [Police Service of Northern Ireland] to specifically investigate any potential regulatory breaches by executive ministers including the Deputy First Minister.”
The Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) leader Colum Eastwood urged Ms.O’Neil to step aside and allow her actions to be examined by Assembly standards authorities.
“The point isn’t that she accidentally broke some obscure piece of guidance – she broke the guidance that she set out, that she argued for, that she stood over and made the case for, rightly and sensibly, but then decided to set that all aside because, I think, for Sinn Fein, they believe that there is one rule for them and one rule for everyone else,” he told the BBC.
And Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) leader Steve Aiken accused republican leaders of “showing a flagrant disregard for public health guidance”.
He added: “It is hard to see how Michelle O’Neil can now stand at an Executive press conference with any credibility, integrity and authority and ask the people of Northern Ireland to listen to her. Any normal political leader would be considering their position.”
Guidance set by the Northern Ireland Executive says a maximum of 30 people should attend a funeral, and friends should only attend when there are no family members in attendance.
Photos from the funeral of Mr Storey – who was considered the head of intelligence of the IRA – showed scores of mourners lining the streets.
Ms O’Neil said the funeral cortege was limited to 30 people and said social distancing inside the church was “exemplary”. It is understood more than 100 people were inside the church.
She previously acknowledged that a selfie taken at the cemetery of her posing close to two men, one of whom had his arm on her shoulder, “Should not have happened”.
Police are investigating potential breaches of lockdown rules.