IT’S a matter of huge regret that the excellent job that the First and deputy First Minister were doing in battling the Covid pandemic has been hit by the current row over Michelle O’Neill’s attendance at the funeral of Bobby Storey.
Let it also be said that it is also a matter of regret that Mr Storey’s family have been thrust into the centre of this stand-off at a time when they should be allowed space to come to terms with their loss.
Mrs O’Neill’s attendance at the funeral was always likely to be jumped on by those ever-alert for any chance to score political points. Had the event passed off without a hitch there would still have been loud voices of complaint emanating from familiar places. But it cannot be said that Mrs Foster is one of those voices at this time. Since the controversy erupted she has acted in a restrained and reasonable way, despite the deep reservations that she may have about Mrs O’Neill’s attendance at the funeral. That may well be because she has been given pause for thought by the fact that she herself was under considerably more pressure to step aside or resign at the height of the RHI crisis and elected to stick it out. But there’s no doubt that she’s also doing her best to protect the political institutions while trying to respond to the very real public concern over Mrs O’Neill’s attendance at the funeral – public concern that is not just coming from the unionist community.
The desire of Mrs O’Neill and her colleagues right across the republican movement to give a fitting send-off to a giant of republicanism and a much-loved friend is entirely understandable. But once the decision was made to enter a public space containing an unpredictable number of people during a time of pandemic, a degree of control was inevitably given up – with the resulting political storm dominating the headlines for over a week now.
For her part, Mrs O’Neill has been adamant that she abided by the regulations and has issued an apology for any hurt caused to grieving families. The pointless gesture of the Stormont debate on Tuesday calling for Mrs O’Neill to apologise is over. And with claims and counter-claims dissolving into meaningless rounds of technicalities and interpretations, it is time for the Executive to put the matter behind it and resume the vital job of protecting us from the pandemic – a job it has latterly been doing professionally and competently.
Meanwhile, it appears as if a large number of smaller Orange parades are going to go ahead on Monday across the north and bonfires will be lit on the Eleventh Night. It has been laughably claimed that this is in response to Mrs O’Neill’s funeral attendance when in fact the parades were applied for a long time ago and most of the bonfire materials were amassed in the spring.
It’s vital the Executive returns to the task of keeping people safe and alive.