Analysis: Why Northern Ireland’s deputy first minister is facing her own Dominic Cummings moment over the lockdown funeral of Bobby Storey
Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill during a press conference outside Parliament Buildings in Stormont, Belfast.
Michelle O’Neill’s controversial attendance at a packed funeral for an IRA stalwart has sent Northern Irish politics into a tailspin once more. Andrew McQuillian explores the row — and its parallels with the furore over Dominic Cummings’ own lockdown trip
Funerals have always had political resonance in Northern Ireland.
Yet few would have imagined that the ceremony this week for the late Bobby Storey, the IRA stalwart credited with masterminding prison breaks and bank robberies, could have generated a political furore which has enveloped the Sinn Fein leadership, particularly the Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland Michelle O’Neill, and raised questions yet again about the sustainability of the Northern Ireland Executive.
Despite restrictions around mass gatherings, crowds which contained the republican hierarchy – O’Neill, the party’s president Mary Lou McDonald and Gerry Adams – gathered to pay their respects.
The regulations in Northern Ireland, which stipulate only 10 people should be allowed to attend a funeral, appear to have been blown out of the water. 100 people were reportedly gathered in the church, while the crowds outside were well in excess of the Stormont limit which allows for gatherings of up to 30 people.
O’Neill’s response, a la Cummings, has been simply to deny there is a problem in the first place
Social distancing went out the window later in the day as well, when a photo of O’Neill standing in close proximity to two fellow attendees appeared on social media.
The situation, which has drawn scant remark from the rest of the UK, has the potential to become as synonymous with O’Neill as Barnard Castle has with Dominic Cummings.
Amid the maelstrom of anger it has unleashed from those who have adhered to the guidance on funerals, it has also set the hares running on yet another Stormont crisis and shone an unforgiving light on the inherent faults of the mandatory coalition at Stormont.
O’Neill’s credibility as a figure who can impart solemn requests to stay safe is pretty much nil; it is no coincidence that Thursday’s daily Stormont press conference she normally leads alongside Arlene Foster was cancelled.
All of Sinn Fein’s partners in the Executive have called on O’Neill to either resign or step aside pending an investigation by Stormont’s standards commissioner, a role which incidentally is vacant. That the nationalist SDLP and cross-community Alliance Party are among that group belies the suggestion made by Sinn Fein outriders that this is a unionist conspiracy to oust her.
Of course, being Northern Ireland, it is not a simple matter of forcing a resignation. Under the power-sharing structures, the office of First and Deputy First Minister is a joint one and cannot function if one of those positions is vacant. If O’Neill does not resign herself, the only way to get rid of her would be the unlikely prospect of Arlene Foster resigning.
Foster, regarded as having performed adroitly throughout the pandemic when Executive solidarity was initially fraying, has taken a measured approach.
She has written to O’Neill calling on her to apologise, while the DUP’s Westminster leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has said while they would like O’Neill to step aside pending an investigation, they have no intention of pulling down the institutions over this.
Given Foster’s own RHI nightmare in 2016, the DUP have probably accepted the optics of her demanding O’Neill must go would be problematic. It is in their interest to keep the devolution show on the road, regardless of what a few refuseniks in the Commons and House of Lords may think.
We are therefore unlikely to see an immediate tailspin towards the sort of collapse which put devolution out of commission for three years. Yet, it simply underlines one of the many problems at the heart of this Executive, and that is Sinn Fein’s approach to politics.
O’Neill’s response, a la Cummings, has been simply to deny there is a problem in the first place.
Appearing before a Stormont Committee, she made the jarring assertion that those upset by what took place of “political point scoring”. This was doubled down on by MLA Martina Anderson, former MEP, IRA member and maudlin figure of fun among unionists, who told O’Neill “she had to be there yesterday, the Republican family need you there”.
Anderson’s response in itself is interesting, seemingly elevating Sinn Fein and the wider republican movement’s wants to a higher station than acting responsibly in the interest of the common good.
That an exception had to be made for one of their own during a pandemic while the people it purports to govern followed guidance is a classic of the genre. Sinn Fein remains, fittingly given its roots, an organisation which believes that it is above the strictures which govern everyone else.
The presence of Adams and the paramilitary flourishes at the funeral were therefore a reminder of the real purpose of Sinn Fein. Amid the varnish of what would appear to be a normal, left-wing political movement remains a core associated with its terrorist past which remains committed to its one real aim, Irish unification, rather than responsible government. To quote Adams himself, “they’ve not gone away, you know”.
This demonstrates the bind that Northern Irish politics is in. Given mandatory coalition and its stupefying grip on properly accountable politics, the devolution road show will likely chunter on with at its heart a party which is a law unto itself, incapable of being held to account which will continue to prioritise its cause at the expense of all else.
As with the Cummings, O’Neill looks set to tough this one out and while she may survive, it adds yet another running sore to Northern Ireland’s politics.
Andrew McQuillan works in public affairs and writes extensively on Northern Ireland