I didn’t play politics during the pandemic – O’Neill

Northern Ireland’s First Minister Michelle O’Neill has denied “playing politics” during the coronavirus pandemic.

Ms O’Neill, who now serves as First Minister, will give evidence to the UK Covid-19 inquiry in Belfast throughout the day.

Asked whether she felt she was providing good leadership to Northern Ireland during the pandemic, alongside then First Minister Arlene Foster, Ms O’Neill said she was.

Queen's Day Honors List 2022
Arlene Foster, former First Minister of Northern Ireland and former leader of the DUP, was First Minister during the pandemic (Liam McBurney/PA)

Ms O’Neill was shown a tense WhatsApp message with Baroness Foster on March 21, 2020.

Baroness Foster tells Ms O’Neill in the conversation that she felt her “public undermining of Robin (Swann) was completely inappropriate”.

“If you want to bring about change in policy, you are going in completely the wrong direction. You play politics when things are way too serious.

“It is extremely disappointing, but unfortunately I am not surprised.”

Ms O’Neill responded during the call: “It is too serious to tolerate. Lives will be lost. Start listening.”

Baroness Foster then questioned whether Ms O’Neill “called two of your ministerial colleagues incompetent”, adding: “Naomi (Long) and Robin (Swann) have both raised concerns about your behaviour”, and urged told her to “be more collegial”. ”.

Michelle O'Neill visits Primate Dixon Primary School
The Covid investigation showed a tense WhatsApp exchange between Michelle O’Neill and Arlene Foster (Liam McBurney/PA)

Ms O’Neill replied: “The department is not for Robin. We are not well served by the civil service. This is a time to rear their heads and urge them to haste. Our nurses are crying out for help in doing their jobs. I have spoken to many from the Western trust area this week and they need us to fight for them.’ Lead counsel on the investigation Clair Dobbin KC has accused Ms O’Neill of playing politics.

Ms O’Neill said she “absolutely” rejects playing politics over Covid-19 restrictions.

She also pointed out that the exchange took place in the context of disagreement within the executive branch over the closure of schools.

“As I said, I refute the accusation that I was playing politics, this was about what I thought was the right thing to do,” she told the inquiry.

She said she was “trying to find consensus around the board table” on issues like school closures.

Commenting on the conversations between her and Baroness Foster, Ms O’Neill said: “We had a difference in approach, which is not about politics, but about what is the right way and what is the wrong way.

“Like I said, I refute the charge of playing politics, this was about what I thought was the right thing to do.”