Stormont’s leaders conceded they could have handled aspects of the Covid-19 response differently, as they remembered those who have died during the pandemic.
First Minister Arlene Foster and deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill said while ministers in the five-party coalition had clashed at times over lockdown decisions, they all had done what they believed was best for the public.
Mrs Foster and Ms O’Neill took part in a minute’s silence in the Northern Ireland Assembly chamber on Tuesday, as part of UK-wide events to mark the first anniversary of the announcement of the first coronavirus lockdown.
The deaths of a further two patients who had previously tested positive for Covid-19 were reported by the Department of Health on Tuesday, taking the toll recorded by the department in Northern Ireland to 2,107.
At Belfast Cathedral on Tuesday night more than 2,100 tea lights were lit to signify the lives lost in Northern Ireland to the pandemic.
The striking visual display stretched the length of the cathedral’s central aisle.
The tea lights were lit for a special service of reflection that was live streamed.
Earlier, after the period of reflection in the Assembly chamber, Mrs Foster said Northern Ireland had experienced its worst year in living memory.
“It’s been a hugely difficult year for so many people in Northern Ireland,” she said.
“It has been probably the toughest year in living memory.
“There are still some people alive who remember the Second World War, but I think it’s probably been the toughest year in living memory for a lot of people.
“So, it was absolutely right that we should take a moment at 12pm to remember what has happened this year, and to hopefully look forward to better days.”
Mrs Foster added: “Obviously there is things that we would have done differently if we had known what was coming in the future, but I think there will be a time to look back and reflect on all of the decisions that have been taken, how we took them, the pace in which we had to take them.
“I think what was very clear to me, from Executive colleagues, and of course we have our differences at time, but we all wanted, all of us, to do what was right for all of our community.
“For some of us, having to close down the economy was hugely difficult. We’ve spent most of our political career building up the economy, building up our tourism sector and hospitality sector, and to have it closed for the best part of a year has been hugely damaging for people’s livelihoods and indeed for their wellbeing.
“We have had to take decisions for the greater good, which have been hugely, hugely difficult.
“I’m on record of saying that this has been the toughest year of my political life.”
Ms O’Neill said balancing the need to protect lives and livelihoods had been a “nightmare”.
“I think there’ll be plenty of time for reflection, I think today is about individuals, their loss, their experience and we’re focused on that,” she said.
“We’re still fighting the pandemic, we’re still in the middle of it, we’re still having to chart our way through it and it’s very challenging, very difficult to always trying to get that balance.
“I’m quite sure whenever we reflect there’ll be lots of things we all could have done differently.
“For now, my focus is firmly on the future, trying to get us out of this pandemic, this space that we’re in right now.
“But, I mean, there is learning. I’ve learned every day in this pandemic, you know, constantly trying to balance lives and livelihoods the whole way through – this has been a nightmare at times to be honest.”
Ms O’Neill said it had been a year of “huge challenge”.
“It’s always useful to take a step back and actually reflect on what’s been, but I also like to look towards the future and I think it’s important that we give people hope that there are brighter days ahead and that we have an opportunity to get back to some semblance of normality,” she said.
“I think that certainly for me whenever I reflect on the year that’s been, there’s certainly been many challenges, there’s been many sleepless nights.
“It’s been a time where we’ve demonstrated that as political leaders when we work together we actually can support our people and it’s something that’s hugely, for me, a very strong point over the past year.
“Albeit at times there was difficulties and different approaches, but I think, collectively, we’ve worked together to try to do the right thing.”
Another 174 confirmed cases of the virus were reported by the Department of Health on Tuesday. On Tuesday there were 159 Covid-positive confirmed inpatients in hospital, of whom 14 were in ICUs.