Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill has accepted that a large crowd at a republican funeral this summer undermined public health messaging on coronavirus.
Northern Ireland’s Deputy First Minister expressed regret after significant numbers watched Bobby Storey’s cortege passing through west Belfast in June.
Ms O’Neill and other senior Sinn Fein members attended the service.
Public gatherings were limited to hamper the spread of infection.
A row with the DUP over the affair has stymied joint public press conferences by the leaders of Northern Ireland’s powersharing adminstration at a key time during their response to the pandemic.
An important meeting of Stormont ministers began on Thursday afternoon during which ministers are anticipated to agree a series of new restrictions to tackle the increased spread of the virus.
Ms O’Neill and DUP First Minister Arlene Foster are now expected to make a return to the podiums to give a press conference after the Executive meeting concludes.
Ministers are expected to consider the introduction of a series of localised Covid-19 restrictions in Northern Ireland.
The PA news agency understands the greater Belfast area could be subject to tightened measures to clamp down on increasing cases of coronavirus.
Postcodes are anticipated to be used to delineate where the beefed-up restrictions will apply.
Despite the rise in case numbers in the region, ministers are also still set to discuss a provisional date for reopening wet pubs in Northern Ireland.
One further coronavirus death was announced by Stormont’s Department of Health on Thursday, taking the toll recorded by the department to 568.
Another 78 confirmed cases of Covid-19 were also confirmed.
Ms O’Neill has acknowledged that Stormont’s public health messaging capacity had been undermined by the row over the funeral.
She told RTE this week: “It wasn’t my intention this would happen, but it did, I accept this and I regret this is the case.
“I accept that we have not been able to deliver clear messaging in the format that was the practice before this controversy.”
Irish Taoiseach Micheal Martin and First Minister Mrs Foster welcomed the comments ahead of a crucial Executive meeting on Thursday on tightening coronavirus restrictions.
Mr Martin said the response of Sinn Fein had been one of denial for far too long and that stood in sharp contrast to the party’s response to a controversy over Irish Government figures at a golf dinner during the pandemic.
He added: “It should have happened earlier but it has happened and I welcome it.”
Northern Ireland’s First Minister has said her Sinn Fein powersharing partner did the right thing in acknowledging her undermining of public health messaging.
Health minister Robin Swann has promised to urge concrete action on colleagues.
It has been two-and-a-half months since Mrs Foster and Ms O’Neill appeared at a joint post-meeting press conference.
Mrs Foster said: “It is right that the Deputy First Minister has acknowledged the undermining of the public messaging as a result of what happened, and the deep hurt and anger that was caused as a result of Michelle O’Neill’s action.
“Those who set the rules must abide by the rules.”
Mr Storey’s funeral was investigated by police over potential breaches by mourners of social distancing rules.
Large crowds, with marshals, were present as the cortege passed through west Belfast.
Ms O’Neill initially stood by her decision to attend the service for the senior republican but did apologise to families bereaved during lockdown for any hurt caused by scenes of hundreds of people lining the route.
The First Minister added: “Clearly those investigations and inquiries into the activities at the funeral which we instigated must continue and we look forward to their conclusions as soon as possible.
“Northern Ireland is facing very significant challenges as a result of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic and it is vital that, as we move forward, we do so on the basis that our messages are clear and that the actions of everyone in leadership do nothing to undermine the collective efforts to beat Covid-19.”
The DUP leader could face a challenge in persuading members of her own party to back any decision to resume joint coronavirus briefings with her partner in Government.
DUP Upper Bann MP Carla Lockhart said: “The consequences of their blatant disregard for the public health message is evidenced in the case count, yet sorry seems to be the hardest word.
“Breathtaking arrogance. What they expect of others they won’t do themselves.”
Northern Ireland’s coronavirus case rate is 35 per 100,000 people. That is higher than other parts of the UK.
Chief scientific adviser Professor Ian Young said there had been a 20-fold increase in the number of cases since the start of July compared with just a five-fold rise in the number of tests. The daily average is now over 90.
Tanaiste Leo Varadkar also welcomed Ms O’Neill’s statement and called on Sinn Fein’s Pearse Doherty to apologise for attending the funeral.
The Donegal TD was among a number of the party’s representatives who appeared at the service.
Speaking in the Irish parliament (Dail), Mr Varadkar said: “While I can understand people paying their respects in the streets, I can’t understand or accept the political rally in Milltown cemetery.
“This was no graveside oration. Mr Storey was cremated on the other side of town.
“It was a political rally in the middle of a pandemic organised by Sinn Fein and other republicans.
“Deputy Doherty, you spoke at that rally, and I want to know now if you are going to apologise for that and whether you will be held to account for it?
“Will anyone in Sinn Fein be resigning as a consequence of this? Or do you believe that Sinn Fein republicans are some sort of higher caste that don’t have to obey the same laws as anyone else and don’t have to follow the public health guidance?”
Mr Doherty did not acknowledge his comments, which prompted Mr Varadkar to suggest a debate on the incident.
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