Sinn Féin has been accused in the North of displaying “brass neck hypocrisy” by unionists after Michelle O’Neill claimed she had “never deviated” from public health advice.
The Deputy First Minister came under fire after she accused the DUP of working against the Executive and public health team in handling the pandemic – eliciting uproar from unionist MLAs.
First Minister Arlene Foster hit back at Ms O’Neill’s remarks by firmly laying part of the blame for Northern Ireland’s six-week lockdown at Sinn Fein’s feet after the Bobby Storey funeral row was reignited yet again.
It comes as chief scientific adviser Professor Ian Young warned the tougher restrictions are necessary as inaction would result in thousands of deaths.
As of yesterday, a further 12 people with Covid-19 died in the North, bringing the death toll to 1,166.
Another 510 new cases of the virus were also recorded and the hospital occupancy rate is 102pc.
Speaking to media at a virtual meeting of the North South Ministerial Council yesterday, Ms Foster said the “draconian” and sweeping measures, starting on Boxing Day, were indicative of a failure of society as a whole.
She cited, however, that Sinn Féin’s presence at the funeral of republican Bobby Storey in June – when there were strict limitations in place – damaged public health messaging.
“Before [then] compliance in Northern Ireland was very good, and in fact we were the envy of other colleagues in the United Kingdom,” said the DUP leader.
“But at the end of June, one party, Sinn Féin, decided whilst they made the laws they were also above the laws. And now we find ourselves in a situation where messaging is very difficult.”
She added: “We’ve seen a breakdown in compliance and I very, very much regret that to be the case.”
Ms O’Neill had earlier hit out at the DUP’s role in handling the Covid crisis, accusing the party of working against the Executive and public health team.
“I have never deviated from the public health advice, in a five-party coalition,” she told RTÉ. “The DUP has worked against the entire public health team and the Executive because there’s a collective will in the other parties to do more at different times throughout the pandemic.”
The deputy minister, who is understood to be one of 24 interviewed by police as part of a PSNI probe into Mr Storey’s funeral, also doubled down on her position, repeating her claim during the NSMC meeting.
Asked if her public health advice claim was credible, she replied: “In terms of following the public health advice, I said I’ve never deviated from the advice of the chief medical officer when he brought forward, or the health team brought forward, proposals for how we respond to Covid.”
UUP health spokesperson Alan Chambers said Sinn Féin would win a “clean sweep of gold medals” if “brass neck hypocrisy was an Olympic sport”.
DUP Westminster MP Carla Lockhart also hit out at Ms O’Neill, describing her remarks as “shameful”, tweeting: “The point at which you, and thousands of others attended the Storey funeral, was the point at which the united community response to the threat of Covid was undermined beyond repair. And you still won’t apologise,”
Meanwhile, Ms Foster suggested schools would open as scheduled in January, with the focus of officials’ discussions on additional safety measures.
Concerns have been voiced by head teachers and parents that schools, many of which finished yesterday for the festive break, lack clarity.