SINN Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald has said no one should be punished for attending the funeral of former leading IRA figure Bobby Storey.
Ms McDonald said Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill would not be stepping aside while the PSNI investigates suspected breaches of Covid-19 social distancing rules at the funeral of Mr Storey.
The Dublin Central TD said she did not have any regrets or feel the need to apologise for her actions on Tuesday and that she was pleased to have the opportunity to “say goodbye to a friend of mine”.
It comes amid growing pressure at Stormont with all four parties in the Northern Ireland Executive aside from Sinn Féin - the DUP, the SDLP, the Ulster Unionists and Alliance - calling for Ms O'Neill to step aside temporarily.
Ms McDonald, her predecessor Gerry Adams, Ms O'Neill and a number of Sinn Féin TDs and MLAs, including Pearse Doherty, attended the funeral of Mr Storey in west Belfast which drew a reported crowd of around 1,800 people on Tuesday.
Ms McDonald defended her party’s actions at Leinster House on Thursday. “I am very clear that everybody in politics, particularly in the North, those leading the executive, still have a very considerable job to do.
“We need to get our children back to school. We need to get people back to college and university. We need to get people back to work safely and that work is underway, but it's not finished yet.
“And no, I don't think anybody should be punished or asked to step aside or step down because they attended the funeral of their friend.”
Ms McDonald said she was very honoured to be asked to attend the funeral mass and she was one of a “very small number” who did a reading.
She added: “There was a limited cortege. There were numbers lining the streets, this is the problem when somebody is a public figure or where somebody dies in very tragic circumstances and very difficult circumstances, people will come out to pay their respects.
“I believe those organising the funeral did their very best to maintain social distancing, but I also know that public sentiment when it's somebody whose known and admired and loved, or somebody who loses their life in very tragic circumstances, people will come out to pay their respects.
“So I think there needs to be, above all else in this circumstance, absolute thoughts and sensitivity to the families in question.”
She said she would not have been in a position to do that had the funeral been a week earlier due to travel restrictions Ms McDonald said that if she were Taoiseach she would “of course” still go to the funerals of people who were friends of hers. She said thousands of people didn’t travel to the funeral and watched it online.
Responding to earlier criticism from Tánaiste Leo Varadkar of Ms O’Neill’s attendance at Saturday’s sitting of the Dáil, Ms McDonald said it was “entirely appropriate” for her to be there as the leader of a national party.
She said that others from other political parties travelled to Dublin at the weekend from beyond the island of Ireland.
Ms McDonald was speaking as she unveiled Sinn Féin’s frontbench team with the most notable change seeing Waterford TD David Cullinane replacing Louise O’Reilly as health spokesperson. Ms O’Reilly becomes enterprise spokesperson, shadowing Mr Varadkar.
The party has also promoted a number of first-time TDs including Mairéad Farrell who becomes public expenditure spokesperson; Matt Carthy, who takes the agriculture brief; Rose Conway Walsh, who will shadow Simon Harris in higher education; and Darren O’Rourke, who will mark Climate Action Minister Eamon Ryan.
Ms McDonald has made popular Donegal TD Pádraig Mac Lochlainn the new Sinn Féin chief whip.