Northern Ireland First Minister Michelle O’Neill has apologised for going to the funeral of a senior IRA member while COVID restrictions were in place.

Ms O’Neill, who was deputy first minister at the time, signalled her remorse for her actions during the latest hearings at the coronavirus inquiry.

In June 2020, Ms O’Neill went to the funeral of Bobby Storey who joined the IRA as a teenager and was arrested numerous times.

Bobby Storey, a former leading IRA member, died earlier this month
Image:
Bobby Storey. Pic: PA

He was supportive of the peace process in Northern Ireland, and later served as Sinn Fein’s northern party chair.

The 64-year-old died following a failed lung transplant, with a funeral taking place in Belfast.

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A large crowd gathered for Bobby Storey's funeral procession
Image:
Thousands gathered for Bobby Storey’s funeral procession. Pic: PA

Thousands gathered for the procession – including many Sinn Fein politicians – and there was vocal criticism from political rivals claiming COVID regulations were breached.

Speaking to the inquiry, Ms O’Neill said: “I know that my actions also angered the families and for that I’m truly sorry. I am sorry for going and I’m sorry for the harm that’s been caused after (it).

Following questioning, Ms O’Neill said she did not think her actions would have sparked anger at the time “but I ought to have”.

“I’ve said it publicly on a number of occasions about how sorry I am and I am absolutely, from the bottom of my heart, sorry.

“I do accept wholeheartedly that I in some way damaged our Executive relations with colleagues who had been working very hard with me the whole way through, and I also accept wholeheartedly that I damaged the public health messaging and I had work to do to regain that.”

“Sorry” no longer the hardest word for Northern Ireland’s first minister


David Blevins - Senior Ireland correspondent

David Blevins

Senior Ireland correspondent

@skydavidblevins

Michelle O’Neill faced fierce criticism for attending the funeral of IRA leader Bobby Storey during the global pandemic.

With thousands lining the route, the then deputy first minister had breached the power-sharing government’s own COVID restrictions.

At the time, Ms O’Neill, who is deputy leader of Sinn Fein, said she would “never apologise for attending the funeral of a friend”.

Four years later, and sorry no longer seems to be the hardest word for Northern Ireland’s first minister.

She asked if she could address bereaved relatives directly but was told she was there to give evidence.

Not once, but twice, the first minister said she was “sorry” – “sorry from the bottom of my heart”.

During the pandemic, unionists preferred to take their lead from Westminster, but nationalists looked to the Irish government.

But Ms O’Neill told the inquiry she “absolutely refutes” any suggestion she was playing politics during the pandemic.

A subsequent report found the Police Service of Northern Ireland prioritised public safety over coronavirus restrictions at the funeral – but did so without showing bias.

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At the time, Ms O’Neill said she would never apologise for attending the funeral of a “friend”.

She faced calls to stand aside from unionist politicians, including Traditional Unionist Voice leader Jim Allister.

He said at the time: “In light of the fact that Ms O’Neill is today present with many hundreds of others at the funeral of Bobby Storey her position is untenable.

“Her conduct is grossly offensive and insulting to the many law-abiding people who have made the huge sacrifice of foregoing a normal funeral as they said farewell to family members who died recently.”



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