This week has seen the highly unusual sight of Sinn Féin being isolated, with cross-party and cross-community opprobrium heaped on it for how flagrantly it breached Stormont’s regulations and public health guidance at Bobby Storey’s funeral and then its absurd insistence that there were no such breaches.
But while in political terms Sinn Fein’s credibility on this issue has been crippled, the more alarming development over recent days is how the party is now prepared to jeopardise public safety by muddying clear aspects of Stormont’s public safety guidance in an attempt to defend its own indefensible conduct.
Even before the funeral, the simplicity of the lockdown rules had given way to a far more complex code which even many of those following it closely and reading the legislation would struggle to definitively outline.
Yesterday Chief Medical Officer Michael McBride accepted that “it is increasingly complex for the public to know what they should be doing”.
But there were aspects of the advice which have remained simple, and were largely being followed – including a page on the Executive’s website (deleted in the days after Mr Storey’s funeral) explaining in layman’s terms the rules around the burial of the dead, something which carries significant risk of spreading the virus.
Yet after the events of recent days many members of the public are likely to be genuinely confused about what it is they are being asked to do.
Senior Sinn Fein figures have confused and undermined the health advice which when it was not followed by Black Lives Matters protesters led to them being publicly admonished by Michelle O’Neill who told them that they were “killing people” and had to find another way to make their point.
Sowing confusion, Ms O’Neill has repeatedly insisted that the vast funeral – footage of which has now been seen by most people in Northern Ireland – fully adhered to her guidelines.
This week South Down MP Chris Hazzard told the Down Recorder that he had “attended his [Mr Storey’s] funeral in line with the public health instructions” and that “the organisers took every possible care to ensure it adhered to the guidelines on social distancing and public health”.
A member of the public hearing an MP saying that could reasonably believe that advertising a funeral, having thousands of people at a funeral, lifting the coffin, and holding gatherings after the funeral all now “adhere to the guidelines” – when every one of those activities is a separate breach of the guidelines.
On BBC NI’s Inside Politics programme this week veteran Sinn Féin MLA Martina Anderson – a former IRA bomber who formed part of the uniformed guard of honour at funeral – stoically defended what had happened with unswerving indifference to something as trivial as facts.
Demonstrating how the funeral has wrought incoherence in the political message of a party which for months has been crafting a niche as the party of the strictest lockdown, Ms Anderson appeared dismissive of Stormont’s regulations and public health guidance, saying that “we live in a democracy, not in a nanny state”.
Despite the fact that as someone who is not related to Mr Storey the law for which she voted meant that she should not even have been at the funeral, the Foyle MLA said: “It is my firm opinion that I kept to the regulations”.
But as presenter Enda McClafferty pressed her around specific breaches of Stormont’s public health guidance, rather than realising that her position was unravelling, Ms Anderson doubled down on her claims.
When asked why a wake had been held, when Stormont’s guidance says clearly that “wakes should not be held”, Ms Anderson said: “My understanding – I think we should be careful about this, Enda – is that there was a wake and I have been involved in a number of occasions when unfortunately people who lost their loved ones and needed to have a wake and worked with undertakers because the regulations do not prohibit the wake taking place.”
When Mr McClafferty put to Ms Anderson that the advice made clear there should not be a wake, she said: “Not alone is that not my understanding [but] I have personally intervened and made representation on behalf of families in this city who were told that they could not have a wake and was able to ensure that the body, the remains, was brought home to enable them to have a wake and I know that the PSNI has been involved with those families”.
Here a senior Sinn Féin elected representative was purporting to tell the public that it is not against the public health guidelines to hold a wake or to bring home the remains of the deceased – despite that being clearly stated, as the Department of Health confirmed this week.
I asked Sinn Fein whether it would clarify that what Ms Anderson said is incorrect and instead ask the public to not hold wakes or bring the remains of the deceased home. The party did not respond. I asked again. Again, there was silence from a party which for much of the pandemic has presented itself as the most enthusiastic about doing whatever it takes to stop the spread of the virus – until it got to last Tuesday.
The impact of the issue was demonstrated again on the Nolan Show where the Chief Medical Officer felt unable to set out clearly the rules on funerals.
Not wanting to get drawn into political controversy in an Executive where the deputy First Minister is denying reality, Dr McBride said it would be “entirely inappropriate” for him to interpret the public health advice – even though he then said it was “crucial that individuals follow the guidance”.
If unionists choose to respond to last week’s events by themselves breaking the public health guidance over the Twelfth, that would be no more logical or morally justified than the claims by loyalist terror groups during the Troubles that an IRA murder justified them committing murder in response.
It would also be profoundly stupid in political terms, satisfying the desire for whataboutery from the army of anonymous republican social media accounts who over recent days have been salivating at the prospect of bad behaviour over the Twelfth.
But even if there is bad behaviour over the weekend, unless they involve government ministers and are defended by them, such breaches would be in a different category to what happened last week where the rule-makers became rule-breakers.
And already there is a key difference in that almost every senior unionist politician and the leadership of the Orange Order have forthrightly advised people not to come on to the streets on the Twelfth.
Instead, some unionists have advised people not to partake in any traditional Twelfth activity at all, while others have supported bands who are socially distanced parading in their local area, with residents watching from their gardens – although that has the obvious danger of those whose homes are not on the route congregating when they hear music.
By contrast, Sinn Fein made no such appeal before Mr Storey’s funeral. In fact, the party organised for more than 1,000 individuals to travel to the event – and widely advertised the timings and the route of the funeral, itself a breach of Stormont’s own advice.
The next week has potential for more political dispute.
But such discord is far less dangerous than the trashing of a public health message which had not just united politicians, but almost all of society.
If the ultimate outcome of this episode is mere political argument and embarrassment, we will have been fortunate.
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