The presence of Sinn Fein’s leaders among hundreds of mourners at an IRA veteran’s funeral must not become Northern Ireland’s “Dominic Cummings moment”, the health minister has warned.
Robin Swann said the scenes in west Belfast on Tuesday, where roadsides were packed with people as the cortege carrying Bobby Storey passed by, was a clear breach of Stormont restrictions limiting public gatherings to 30 people.
Mr Swann said the Police Service of Northern Ireland was investigating the episode.
Sinn Fein party president Mary Lou McDonald and Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill were among high-profile party members in attendance at the service and later commemoration event at Milltown cemetery.
Ms O’Neill in particular has faced strong criticism from political rivals in Northern Ireland, given her role as the joint head of a Stormont Executive that has been instructing people to limit the size of funerals during the lockdown.
Traditional Unionist Voice leader Jim Allister insisted Ms O’Neill’s position was no longer tenable, while DUP MLA Jonathan Buckley raised a point of order in the Assembly questioning whether she had broken the members’ code of conduct.
Mr Swann’s weekly Covid-19 media conference was later dominated by the issue, with the health minister challenged on whether the executive’s credibility had been undermined.
He was asked if the incident could lead the public to question the point of abiding by the rules – the way some people did after the Prime Minister’s top adviser Mr Cummings was accused of breaching regulations during a trip to the north west of England during lockdown.
“I’m concerned with what I saw this morning in west Belfast,” he said.
“What we are seeing today was a breach of the guidance that has been issued and has been worked on by the executive and has been supported by the executive.”
He added: “I sincerely hope that this isn’t the Dominic Cummings effect in Northern Ireland because in our health service we can’t afford it to be.
“We are in a position in Northern Ireland where we had zero deaths today, with zero people in our intensive care units because of the actions of the people of Northern Ireland.
“So I have a very clear ask – please don’t let this weaken your resolve or your ability to follow the guidance that have gotten us to the position where we are today.”
Mr Swann urged people to continue to comply with the guidance, making clear that “two wrongs don’t make a right”.
“There’s no person, no position or there’s no point of privilege that is above the guidance and the regulations that we have laid down in how we combat Covid-19 in Northern Ireland,” he said.
“Because there’s no one immune from it and that is the guidance we still have to keep reiterating, and I do hope that what we saw today does not undermine the public message that has worked so well in Northern Ireland, that has actually got us to the position where we are today.”
Mr Swann used the west Belfast incident to warn that regional lockdowns could be introduced in Northern Ireland if an upsurge in the virus, similar to that witnessed in Leicester, was to occur locally.
At the briefing, Mr Swann also announced a relaxation of visiting restrictions in hospital and care homes. Lockdown restrictions that are to be dropped include the measure that prevented prospective fathers attending baby scans along with her partners.
The death toll recorded by Northern Ireland’s Department of Health remained at 551 after no further Covid-19 linked deaths were reported on Tuesday.
Another three positive cases of Covid-19 were confirmed, taking the total in the region to 5,760.
DUP MP Gregory Campbell said there had been no respect for the restrictions at the funeral.
“With hundreds of people gathered for the IRA man’s funeral on Tuesday, it will have felt like a kick in the teeth for the many families who over recent weeks have gone to considerable lengths to discourage people from attending their loved one’s funeral,” said the East Londonderry representative.
“The scenes in West Belfast showed no respect for the Covid-19 restrictions. The presence of senior SF personnel such as Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill and others will lead many to conclude it is ‘do as I say not as I do’.
“Police action needs to follow and be seen to take effect.”
Sinn Fein finance minister Conor Murphy, who also attended, insisted organisers had done their best to ensure the guidelines were observed.
He said numbers in the cortege that followed the coffin were limited to 30 and that only a small number of people attended the church service. He said Sinn Fein had also live streamed the event in an effort to encourage people to watch it online.
“This clearly is a very, very popular figure within republicanism, it was clearly going to be a very significant funeral and all efforts were made to try to manage that in line with the guidance,” he told UTV.
PSNI Superintendent Melanie Jones said: “We were made aware of the plans for today’s funeral and have engaged with the celebrant and service organisers to highlight both the public health advice and risks around Covid-19, and the requirement for those attending to adhere to social distancing.
“We had assurances that those attending would observe the health guidelines and that marshals would be in place to encourage those lining the cortege route to observe social distancing.
“We will now review footage gathered during the funeral and will consider any suspected breaches of the Health Protection (Coronavirus Restrictions) Regulations NI 2020.”
Meanwhile, on Tuesday Mr Swann announced changes to restrictions on visiting across all care settings from this Monday.
The revised guidance recognises the right of people to visit their loved ones in hospitals and care homes while balancing the ongoing risk from Covid-19.
Decisions on allowing visitors will now be made on a day-to-day basis, by the nurse in charge in hospitals, or by the manager in care homes, and will depend on the ability to ensure social distancing and safety of both patients/residents and the visitors.
All visitors to hospitals and care homes are now also required to wear a face covering.