The world has been in the inner clutches of the Covid-19 pandemic for almost four months. It has not had a precedent or a historical parallel for well-over a century. It has proven its destructive and indiscriminate credentials with a total of 45,644 deaths across the U.K. and Ireland and well over one million worldwide. Northern Ireland has suffered 551 deaths at the time of writing. Its effects have been deeply scarring to those families who have lost loved ones and those who have been lucky enough to recover. Thousands of families have been denied the chance of paying a respectful and meaningful farewell to a deceased loved one who has succumbed to the pandemic.
As the pandemic deaths and infection rate subsidises across the UK, the regulatory advice has allowed the opening of non-essential services and retailers for the first time since March. Restaurants, bars and cafés are also on the road to return.
From a regional standpoint, the message from the Northern Ireland Executive, led by joint First Ministers Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill, has been to observe stringent adherence to the public health regulations and their respective restrictions. For countless weeks, the media has focused on the Stormont podium for the daily announcements flowing from the First and deputy First Ministers, cautioning the public against the onset of complacency.
The latest in Northern Ireland sees the Executive entangled at its heart. The funeral of republican Bobby Storey, formerly the Northern Chairman of Sinn Féin in West Belfast, saw Michelle O’Neill, Finance Minister Conor Murphy and Martina Anderson MLA in attendance at the 1,800-strong event on Tuesday 30th June.
Senior Republicans, including Ms. Anderson, formed part of a sombre escort to the cortège. Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald and Pearse Doherty TD were amongst numerous republican figures who made the 100km+ trip from Dublin to Belfast.
There appeared to be limited attempts at social distancing amongst the mourners lining the arterial routes of the Falls and Andersonstown Roads, which the hearse led to requiem mass at St. Agnes Chapel. Numerous non-family members of Mr. Storey, including the Deputy First Minister, filed into the church itself.
It is undeniable that this open contravention of the public health guidance by senior Sinn Féin Executive Ministers, particularly Ms. O’Neill who herself was an integral part in the formulation of those same rules. This functions to undermine the credibility of the Executive and their public health message which aims to stem the further spread of Covid-19 and risks the lives of the public itself.
At the Executive Committee on Wednesday afternoon, 1st July, Michelle O’Neill defiantly defended her action by saying that Northern Ireland was currently in ‘a good place.’ Her shallow defence was unquestionably supported by Martina Anderson MLA who, in the Committee, stressed the importance of the occasion of Bobby Storey’s funeral for the broader republican family. Facing serious rebuke from the DUP’s Christopher Stalwart, party lines were as visible and visceral as ever.
Ms. O’Neill’s unrepentant statement was nothing short of shameful, saying that Bobby Storey was a political ‘giant.’
The deputy First Minister’s reverence of Storey, who died in England while receiving medical treatment, is indeed her own personal affair, but no matter how much love she had for him, her attendance at the funeral – which violated her own Executive guidance – was no excuse. Her sweeping statements on Storey themselves are not immune from challenge. Gerry Adams’ graveside oration lauded Mr. Storey’s nationalist stature as akin to that of Irish statesmen Michael Collins and Éamon de Valera.
The guidance is clear, access to which is open for all to see: no more than 30 people are permitted to be in attendance at a funeral service. Need anything more be said? Already the UUP, Alliance, TUV and numerous SDLP members, as well as the DUP Chairman Lord Morrow, have joined the clamour for the Deputy First Minister to resign. Such a call is rather pointless given the method of governance in Northern Ireland which would require the consent of Sinn Féin before the Deputy First Minister was dismissed – an unlikely eventuality. On Wednesday, First Minister Arlene Foster stopped short of calling on her Executive partner to resign, instead suggesting that she should show a serious attempt at making amends. The Executive Committee provided that perfect opportunity. A successful and efficient Executive is after all designed to rest upon bi-partisanship and the reciprocity of advice amongst its members. Ms. O’Neill could not have done much more to signify the opposite than what Arlene Foster advised in her Wednesday statement.
It was viewed by many to be a blatant contempt for families across Northern Ireland who made the hardest of sacrifices because of the public health landscape, their loved ones denied the right to have a meaningful farewell ceremony. Michelle O’Neill simply made an exception for Bobby Storey. There was a visible message: one rule for rule-makers and one rule for the Northern Ireland public who are subject to and have loyally abided by that guidance for four months. Over the past 48 hours, photographs emerged on social media of Ms. O’Neill posing for a photograph with fellow mourners as well as shaking hands with another attendee.
It was particularly noted by News Letter journalist Sam McBride that republicans were quick to deploy scandalous ‘whataboutery’ in order to defend Sinn Féin’s actions.
To see the deputy First Minister telling the media and the public that she continues to believe in the public health message is difficult to take seriously when viewed in the shadow of her conduct on Tuesday afternoon. If it wasn’t so serious, it would arguably be first prize winner of the region’s greatest political irony contest 2020.
Defending her actions and that of her party colleagues is to defend hypocrisy of the highest order and leaves the guidance which she delivered open to the broadest interpretations by the public she addressed.
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