Northern Ireland faces a fresh political crisis after Arlene Foster’s Democratic Unionists called on Sinn Féin’s joint head of government to step aside in a row over alleged breaches of coronavirus rules at an IRA enforcer’s funeral.
Mrs Foster, the first minister, urged deputy first minister Michelle O’Neill to stand down pending a police investigation into alleged breaches of social distancing guidelines at the Belfast funeral of Bobby Storey, a senior figure in the IRA.
But Sinn Féin insisted Ms O’Neill won’t go, saying she “will not be stepping aside as deputy first minister under any circumstances”.
The escalating row has piled pressure on the coalition led by the DUP and Sinn Féin that controls Northern Ireland’s devolved government at Stormont. The power sharing arrangement was only restored in January after a bitter three year political stand-off.
On Wednesday Mrs Foster stopped short of calling for Ms O’Neill’s resignation as she and other Sinn Féin leaders faced mounting criticism for attending the funeral on Tuesday. They were accused of flouting the devolved government’s health advice by joining thousands of mourners at the funeral on Tuesday.
The demand for Ms O’Neill’s resignation followed a DUP meeting on Thursday, said Jeffrey Donaldson, a party MP. The deputy first minister “failed to recognise the public mood” over the funeral, he added.
“In light of the failure of Sinn Féin yesterday to grasp the opportunity to apologise, it is our view that the deputy first minister must now step back from her role while these matters are investigated by the [Police Service of Northern Ireland].”
Three smaller executive parties — the Ulster Unionists, Social Democratic and Labour nationalists, and cross-community Alliance — have also called on Ms O’Neill to stand back.
Responding to the DUP, Sinn Féin said the funeral was organised in accordance with the wishes of the Storey family. “The organisers did everything they could to ensure regulations were met and if it was not for the plan that organisers put in place with the PSNI to limit numbers then there would have been even bigger numbers in attendance.”
The row comes with Covid-19 still circulating in Northern Ireland and its economy in sharp decline due to lockdown restrictions that are only gradually being unwound, with hotels, restaurants and coffee shops reopening on Friday.
Steve Aiken, Ulster Unionist leader, said the affair was unlikely to topple the executive because of the risks posed by coronavirus. “The crisis we have to deal with is Covid and we’re not out of it by a long shot.”
Although Northern Ireland recorded the UK’s fewest number of deaths from coronavirus at the height of the pandemic, Mr Aiken said the threat of a second wave remained a big concern. “We’re at the very early stages of this, and there’s no way we can eliminate this virus until we get a vaccine that works.”