Arlene Foster in the hot seat at UK Covid inquiry: Ex-DUP leader says pandmic showed up flaws in 1998 Good Friday Agreement as a means of running Northern Ireland

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Arlene Foster is now being interrogated at the UK Covid inquiry.

In contrast to yesterday’s witness, Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill, she began her testimony with an oath on The Bible, before being presented with the same questions her former Executive counterpart had faced a day earlier.

Firstly, she was asked whether she had provided “the leadership they [the people of Northern Ireland] deserved” during the pandemic”.

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Her answer is starkly different from Ms O’Neill who, when asked the same question at day earlier (do you think you gave NI the leadership it deserved?) had said: “Yes, I do.”

Baroness Foster at the inquiryBaroness Foster at the inquiry
Baroness Foster at the inquiry

Mrs Foster responded: “I have to say, my lady, it was probably the most difficult period of my political career… it was the most challenging and difficult time – and I have had some difficult times.

“… I certainly tried to do the best for the people of Northern Ireland, recognising that I was First Minister at the time.”

The answer did not satisfy inquiry barrister Clair Dobbin, who had grilled Ms O’Neill with the same cold and methodical demeanour one day earlier.

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“The question was a simple one, baroness Foster – it’s whether or not you and your colleagues gave the people of Northern Ireland the leadership that they deserved during the panedemic.”

Arlene Foster at today's inquiryArlene Foster at today's inquiry
Arlene Foster at today's inquiry

Mrs Foster replied that this was “a subjective question… I can only answer it from my own perspective and I certainly gave as much as I could during the time I was in that position.”

Ms Dobbin tried one more time: “So baroness Foster is it your position that you did give the people of Northern Ireland the leadership they deserved?”

Baroness Foster replied: “My position is that people will have particular views [on that]… I’m sure those views will be varying views. From my perspective I gave the leadership I felt was needed at that time.”

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On Tuesday Ms O’Neill had been grilled about her attendance at the Bobby Storey funeral, and had told the inquiry: “I am sorry for going – and I’m sorry for the hurt that has been caused.”

But she also went on to maintain: "I do believe that I did lead from the front the whole way through the pandemic… apart from this one time I do believe my leadership was strong”.

You can read the News Letter’s whole blow-by-blow account of the hearing at this link:


A series of text messages from Dr Michael McBride (the Chief Medical Officer) from November 2020 were put to Mrs Foster, including one in which he said – apparently in reference to Executive politicians – that they should “hang their head in shame” over their Covid response, and another complaining of “politics at its worst”.

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She replied that “the Chief Medical Officer, like all of us, was exhausted by that stage”.

She added: “It saddens me greatly to see those text messages and actually it brings me back to what we were going through at that particular point in time – and it was an incredibly difficult point we’d reached, because the context of those messages is very critically important.

"I think to get the context we have to go back to September, October – people not actually abiding by the regulations, people tired, people fatigued by the regulations, people looking to the example unfortunately from some of the Sinn Fein ministers breaching the regulations…

"We’d reached a point where people were not listening as well as when they listened back in March / April time.”

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In her written submission to the inquiry, Mrs Foster had said “with hindsight we probably should have locked down earlier” during the first wave, and that “a more precautionary approach might have avoided many deaths” – although NI did lock down sooner than parts of GB.

Asked about who bears responsibility for what happened during the first wave, the baroness said it was “the virus”.

"Nobody had any appreciation of the scale of what was coming towards us,” she said.

"In mid-March at the meeting we had with RoI ministers, in those minutes, you can see our Chief Medical Officer saying that he felt the peak was around 14 weeks [3.5 months] from then.

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"So wrongly – and I say absolutely wrongly – we felt we had time. And we didn’t have time.”

She was pressed whether she “bears any responsibility for the outcomes in NI during the first wave of the pandemic?”

"Yes, of course I accept responsibility,” she replied.


Arlene Foster was quizzed on her response in the very early days of the pandemic in February 2020, before lockdown kicked in.

She was asked if she had been aware at the time that there were “only about two staff in the civil contingencies policy branch” – the section of the Executive Office which is meant to co-ordinate major emergencies.

No, said baroness Foster.

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"I didn't know about the state of preparedness of civil contingencies,” she said.

"I should have known and it should have been brought to me and whilst I accept you'll take a different position I believe the civil servants should have brought it to me…

“I don't think it's unreasonable to expect civil servants to alert [us] if there were matters of concern in relation to those issues…

"If there were particular issues around resourcing I don't think it was unreasonable for those to have been brought to us given what was going on.

"But they weren't.”

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She was asked about planning for the pandemic across different departments in February 2020, and told barrister Clair Dobbin that the system in Northern Ireland meant she was not in a position to made “demands” of her ministers, because they were all from different parties.

It was put to her that she could have “convened a meeting of ministerial colleagues” to talk about the looming viral threat.

"That's not the way mandatory coalition works in Northern Ireland,” replied baroness Foster.

Ms Dobbin was incredulous: "What, that in the face of a global pandemic you can't say to your colleagues 'shall we sit down together and work out what we're all doing and respond’?”

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Baroness Foster replied: “I think it's clear from the minutes thereon that when we did try and have a more collegiate, central role in terms of the pandemic that we were pushed back on that because people, understandably – and I'm not criticising colleagues for this – believed they had their own remit and own department, and believed they are the lead person in respect of that.

"And I respect that because I've grown up in politics through the mandatory coalition system.

"Is it a good system for governance? Is it an efficient system for governance? No it's not, my lady. That's the point.

"But it's the system that we have that was given to us by the Belfast Agreement and it's there for a reason.”

It was put to the baroness that she was “deflecting”.

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Baroness Foster replied: “I'm not deflecting any questions whatsoever. I'm answering the questions to the best of my ability.”

Clair Dobbin said: “Did you ask any of your ministerial colleagues in February 2020 if you could sit round the table and discuss planning for the pandemic with them?”

Arlene Foster replied: “No, I did not.”