Party leaders to meet to discuss differences over republican funeral

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Northern Ireland’s five party leaders are due to meet later to try and resolve serious differences over a republican funeral during the pandemic.

Deputy first minister Michelle O’Neill was heavily criticised by her powersharing partners at Stormont after attending the service for former IRA prisoner Bobby Storey in west Belfast this week.

The ceremony prompted hundreds of people to line the route as the cortege passed through.

Bobby Storey funeral
The ceremony prompted hundreds of people to line the route as the cortege passed through (Liam McBurney/PA)

It was the latest dispute to hit a political coalition finding its feet after three years in cold storage.

All of the other parties which make up Northern Ireland’s devolved government – the DUP, UUP, SDLP and cross-community Alliance Party – called on the deputy first minister to step aside or resign.

First Minister Arlene Foster urged her to apologise and stand aside while police investigate if any breaches occurred.

A senior officer has already reminded the public that it is for independent prosecutors to decide whether offences may have happened.

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.

A maximum of 30 people are allowed to gather outdoors.

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.

The DUP leader has written to her partner-in-government asking her to stand down pending police and Assembly standards investigations into the funeral scenes.

Coronavirus – Mon Jun 29, 2020
Thursday’s scheduled Stormont press conference on coronavirus measures with Mrs Foster and Ms O’Neill was cancelled due to the row (Kelvin Boyes/Press Eye/PA)

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.

A party leaders’ forum was part of the New Decade, New Approach deal which restored Stormont in January.

It is designed to prevent the falling apart of powersharing and make it easier to resolve difficult issues which could damage the fragile administration.

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 has not yet been announced.

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

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

She 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”.

Northern Irish ministers have picked up the pace of reopening the economy over recent weeks.

Pubs which serve food, hotels and some visitor attractions are expected to open their doors later on Friday after coronavirus restrictions were amended.

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