Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill has defended her attendance at the funeral of leading republican Bobby Storey in west Belfast on Tuesday.
he Sinn Fein vice-president insisted the cortege had a “maximum of 30 people in it” in keeping with new Covid-19 regulations agreed on Monday.
Photographs from the funeral showed two long lines of republicans behind the hearse, and people gathered in crowds.
Speaking to The Irish News, Ms O’Neill also insisted that there was social distancing inside St Agnes’ Church.
“Regrettably a considerable number of family members were unable to take part in the cortege as a result of the current restrictions, like many other families who have been unable to properly grieve or mourn the loss of a loved one in a traditional way as a result of the Covid crisis,” she said.
“These restrictions have been very difficult for families who have lost a loved one and particularly those who lost a loved one during the period when society was in lockdown.”
There has been widespread criticism of Sinn Fein members’ attendance at the funeral. Northern Ireland Secretary of State Brandon Lewis surprised at the images from the funeral saying he understood the frustrations of the public at its scale.
Yesterday, Robin Swann told the Executive’s daily conference that he was “very concerned” with what he saw and that no-one should be immune from following the guidelines.
He was speaking as it was confirmed there had been no further deaths from Covid-19 in the previous 24 hours, but said “Northern Ireland cannot afford to become another Leicester”.
A spike in infections saw lockdown restrictions reimposed on Leicester earlier on Tuesday.
“There is no person or position or point of privilege that is above the guidance we had laid down, no one is immune from it,” the minister said.
“I do hope what we saw today does not undermine the message in Northern Ireland that has got us to where we are today.”
“The virus remains a serious threat in Northern Ireland, despite the actions and words of some.”
Mr Swann said that he understood the PSNI would investigate any potential breaches of the guidelines.
“The regulations we have put in place are there to save lives,” he said.
“I seriously hope this is not the Dominic Cummings effect in Northern Ireland.
“Please don’t let this weaken your resolve, two wrongs do not make a right.
“I ask people to keep with what they have been doing because it has saved lives.”
The minister also announced that general visits to hospitals and care homes will be allowed to resume under a number of conditions from Monday.
Partners of pregnant women will also be allowed to accompany them to hospital and doctor visits throughout the pregnancy from baby scans to labour and post-natal care.
In hospital wards and intensive care units one person will be allowed to visit a patient at any one time.
In Covid-19 free care homes two people will be allowed to visit a resident at any one time.
Masks must be worn by those visiting hospitals and care homes and social distancing and other public health advice must be adhered to.
There have been three positive tests for the virus, bringing to 23 the total number of positive tests over the past week.
The Northern Ireland coronavirus death toll remains at 551 and there are no coronavirus-related cases in ICU.
Chief Medical officer Dr Michael McBride said he anticipated “huge anxiety” as Northern Ireland exits lockdown.
“The full impact the virus has had will not be realised for some time to come,” he said.
“The virus doesn’t read our plans and it doesn’t read our guidance and despite our best efforts, we will see clusters and outbreaks in the weeks and months ahead.
“This is something we may have to live with for some time to come.”