Stormont’s Deputy First Minister has stood over her actions at the funeral of an IRA veteran, accusing her critics of trying to score political points.
Michelle O’Neill has faced calls to resign after she and senior Sinn Fein colleagues were among hundreds who gathered in west Belfast for Bobby Storey’s funeral on Tuesday.
Police are investigating potential breaches of coronavirus lockdown rules that restrict outdoor public gatherings to 30 people.
First Minister and DUP leader Arlene Foster has urged her partner in government to apologise and make amends.
The controversy was aired during robust exchanges at Stormont on Wednesday as both leaders appeared for a schedule evidence session before their Assembly scrutiny committee.
She did acknowledge 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”.
Ms O’Neill said the photo happened in a “blink of an eye” as she was leaving the graveside.
“That should not have happened and I am absolutely OK to say that,” she said.
She also declined the opportunity to apologise to anyone who might have contracted Covid-19 as a result of being among the crowds on Tuesday.
The Deputy First Minister told committee members the things the funeral organisers could control, such as the size of the cortege and the numbers inside the church, were within the latest regulations.
Ms O’Neill insisted the cortege was limited to 30 while social distancing inside the church was “exemplary”. It is understood more than 100 people were inside the church.
Contention surrounds the fact the guidelines Sinn Fein has cited in regard to observing Tuesday’s funeral service are still in draft format, and have not been formally signed off by the powersharing executive.
The draft guidance allows more people to attend church services than the limit of ten that applied earlier in the lockdown.
However, the Diocese of Down and Connor has confirmed that its churches should still have been applying the 10 number restriction to funerals on Tuesday.
A statement from the diocese said it received updated guidance from The Executive Office on Tuesday evening.
During the committee evidence session, Ms O’Neill told MLAs: “I can stand over my actions. I have led through this pandemic from the front, I will continue to lead from the front and I continue to work within the regulations and encourage everybody to stick within the regulations and the guidance as we have set out.”
“But that’s not to take away, I am being very clear, to anyone who’s lost throughout this pandemic, this has been an absolute nightmare.”
The Sinn Fein vice president added: “I can only control what’s within my gift.”
She said her party’s actions, such as live streaming the funeral and putting stewards on the roadside to stop people joining the cortege, had prevented the crowds reaching many thousands.
At points the hearing, which was supposed to be focused on the coronavirus response, turned into pointed exchanges between unionist and republican members about Mr Storey’s past and the origins of the Troubles.
Mrs Foster interjected after one such exchange.
Noting her own family’s experience of the Troubles, she added: “We could all sit here and reminisce about things that have happened in the past.
“We’re supposed to be talking about the Covid-19 regulations, and how they have impacted on the people of Northern Ireland.”
Giving evidence alongside Ms O’Neill, the DUP leader voiced concern about the impact of the funeral scenes on Stormont’s public health message.
“I think the credibility of that message has been severely damaged as a result of what happened yesterday,” she said.
“She needs to apologise and recognise the wrong that has been done, and she absolutely needs to make amends for what happened yesterday and take steps to try and build up that credibility again,” said Mrs Foster.
“Many people have had to go to through mourning and grief during this time and haven’t had the comfort of people coming to their homes, they haven’t had the comfort of a full service, yesterday they asked ‘well, why was that the case?’”
Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald and former leader Gerry Adams were among other high-profile party members at the service at St Agnes’ church and a later commemoration event at Milltown cemetery.
Earlier on Wednesday, Secretary of State Brandon Lewis questioned the attendance of Sinn Fein executive ministers.
Mr Lewis said he understood that some people were “frustrated and angry” at what happened.
“I was a bit surprised… when you are saying to people ‘you’ve got to follow those guidelines’,” he said.
“People have given so many sacrifices over the last couple of months, particularly in Northern Ireland where we have seen people really strongly following the guidelines, we’ve seen lower levels of things because people are following those guidelines so well.”
He told BBC Radio Ulster: “I can understand people’s frustrations. It’s not something I would have done.”
There were no further coronavirus linked deaths reported in Northern Ireland on Wednesday, with the toll recorded by the Department of Health remaining at 551.
There was one new case of the virus confirmed, bringing the total in the region to 5,761.