Foster vows not to collapse Stormont over Bobby Storey funeral row

Stormont’s First Minister has vowed not to collapse the devolved executive if the Deputy First Minister refuses to stand down over her attendance at an IRA veteran’s funeral.

Sinn Fein has rejected the DUP’s call for Michelle O’Neill to step aside amid a fierce political row about her actions at Bobby Storey’s funeral.

The event in west Belfast on Tuesday drew hundreds of people on to the streets when coronavirus restriction are in place.

First Minister Arlene Foster has written to her partner-in-government asking her to stand down pending police and Assembly standards investigations into the scenes at the funeral.

The move has plunged the recently restored powersharing institutions into crisis again, with four of the parties in the five-party coalition Executive calling for Ms O’Neill to stand down.

Bobby Storey funeral
Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald, former Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams, and Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill attending the funeral in west Belfast (Liam McBurney/PA)

The events have some echoes of the cash-for-ash furore that toppled the devolved government in 2017 when Mrs Foster refused to accede to a Sinn Fein call for her to temporarily stand down pending an investigation into a botched green energy scheme.

However, Mrs Foster has said she will not collapse the institutions in the way the late Martin McGuinness did when he quit as a joint head of government in January 2017.

She said it was vital Northern Ireland had a government amid the coronavirus emergency.

“Why would I punish the people of Northern Ireland for the bad behaviour of Sinn Fein?” she said.

“People expect me to lead, I will lead and I am not going to walk away from the government of Northern Ireland at a time when we are having severe challenges ahead of us. I think that that would be a dereliction of my leadership and I’m not prepared to do that.”

Thursday’s scheduled Stormont press conference on the coronavirus emergency with Mrs Foster and Ms O’Neill was cancelled due to the row.

Mrs Foster confirmed she was not prepared to appear on a joint platform with Ms O’Neill until the row over her attendance at the funeral was resolved.

“There is a credibility issue now and we have to deal with that,” she told UTV.

“What we need to do is to find a way to build the credibility back.”

The leaders of the five main Stormont parties are due to meet on Friday to attempt to defuse the escalating row.

Earlier on Thursday, Sinn Fein president Mary-Lou McDonald said Ms O’Neill would not be stepping aside. She said no one should be “punished” for attending the funeral of a friend.

Under Stormont regulations and guidance, friends of a deceased person should only attend the funeral if none of the bereaved family members are attending. Mr Storey’s family did attend Tuesday’s funeral.

Mrs McDonald said the Stormont Executive should keep focused on work to tackle the Covid-19 emergency.

“That work is under way but it is not finished yet, so, no, I don’t think anybody should be punished or asked to step aside or step down because they attended the funeral of a friend. No, I don’t,” she said.

On Wednesday, Mrs Foster urged Ms O’Neill 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.

She differentiated between the management of the funeral cortege and service and scenes along the route when hundreds gathered to watch the procession pass. Ms O’Neill insisted that was outside of her control.

I am satisfied that my actions at Bobby Storey’s funeral are in line with public health advice

These petty attempts to political point score must end and the Storey family giving space to grieve

My thoughts are with Bobby’s much loved partner Teresa and the Storey family today pic.twitter.com/CQ445OBPjQ

— Michelle O’Neill (@moneillsf) July 1, 2020

The DUP called for Ms O’Neill to step down following her refusal to apologise.

Updated Stormont lockdown measures currently limit funerals to a maximum of 30 people – having previously been 10.

Friends should only attend when there are no family members of the deceased in attendance, according to the rules and guidance.

The Diocese of Down and Connor has said St Agnes’ Church should still have been applying the 10-person limit to funerals on Tuesday morning.

The diocese said it was only informed by Stormont officials on Tuesday evening that more numbers could be accommodated.

It is understood that more than 100 people were inside St Agnes’ for Mr Storey’s funeral.

While Stormont is anticipated to sign off guidance that would allow more people to attend a funeral, depending on the size of the church, that move has not yet been announced.

Colum Eastwood
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood called for Ms O’Neill to step aside (Brian Lawless/PA)

Police have said they are investigating whether there were any breaches of lockdown rules during Tuesday’s events.

Ms O’Neill has insisted the funeral cortege was limited to 30, while social distancing inside the church was “exemplary”.

However, she has 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”.

She said the photo happened in a “blink of an eye” as she was leaving the graveside.

On Thursday the SDLP also called for Ms O’Neill to step aside and allow her actions to be examined by Assembly standards authorities.

SDLP deputy leader and Stormont infrastructure minister Nichola Mallon said: “We always have to show leadership even in the midst of our grief and a lot of hurt has been caused, and I think an apology earlier on would have helped this situation.”

The Ulster Unionist Party and Alliance Party have also called for Ms O’Neill to stand down.

There was one further coronavirus-linked death reported in Northern Ireland on Thursday, taking the total recorded by the Department of Health to 552.

There were seven new cases of the virus confirmed, bringing the total in the region to 5,768.

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