Michelle O'Neill and Arlene Foster appeared in their first joint press conference in more than two months on September 10.

Michelle O’Neill, the Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, has publicly said that she regrets the controversy caused by her attendance at former IRA member Bobby Storey’s funeral earlier this summer.

On September 10, O’Neill joined Arlene Foster, the First Minister of Northern Ireland, for a joint press conference, the first coronavirus briefing held by the duo in more than two months. Foster had reportedly “demanded” that O’Neill apologize before the joint press briefings could resume.

O’Neill, the vice president of the political party Sinn Féin, was among a number of her party’s senior leadership who attended former IRA member Bobby Storey’s funeral in West Belfast on June 30, while most of the region was still under severe lockdowns.

Her attendance was met with fierce criticism, but O’Neill, who delivered an address at the funeral, defended her actions. Foster announced that an inquiry would be launched, which is ongoing.

On Thursday, speaking before O’Neill, Foster said it was time to “arrest the creep of COVID-19 across our communities.”

O’Neill, who echoed Foster in offering her sympathies to those who have lost a loved one to coronavirus, said: “Can I say firstly that there has obviously been a lot of commentary and speculation around these press conferences and when they might return.

“So let me say this before my substantive remarks: I do accept that the public messaging about the pandemic has been undermined by the controversy over the last number of months. It was never my intention that that would happen, but it did, and I regret that.

“So I want to rebuild trust with the public as we have the most challenging time ahead of us on many levels in the coming weeks and months and we must work together for the common good.

“The fact is that we are still in the midst of a global pandemic, it has had and continues to have a profound negative impact on our society, our economy, our people, our health, and our wellbeing.

“Getting through the first phase of the pandemic involved a huge partnership effort between government, the wider public sector, and the people. We are really grateful for that partnership effort.

“But getting through the first phase in itself was not the end. We have recently seen a significant increase in cases right across this island, and we need everyone to understand how serious the public health situation continues to be.

“COVID has not changed, it’s no less deadly than it was when we initially had to impose restrictions, and our response to and recovery from this pandemic is going to be an ongoing and continuous process. It won’t necessarily keep moving in a forward trajectory; we’ve always said that we’d be prepared to step forward and also to step back when it was necessary.”

O’Neill then discussed the “very concerning” growing trend in confirmed coronavirus cases. She noted: “Contrary to the belief of some, this is not all down to increased testing. While we have five times the testing, we have twenty times the number of confirmed cases.”

She then announced new restrictions that were being introduced across Northern Ireland in a bid to prevent further spread of the virus.

“I think that the events at the end of June did undermine our messaging in terms of COVID,” Foster said later in the press conference. “I think that has been acknowledged and I welcome that. Clearly other investigations will take place and those will continue.”

Foster added: “But, this is about the challenge we’re facing now coming into the autumn and winter.”

You can watch the press briefing from September 10 here:

NI Executive Covid-19 update - 10 September 2020

The First Minister Arlene Foster and deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill announced the Executive’s decision to introduce a series of localised restrictions to stem the increase in Covid-19 cases & keep people safe The press conference in full with sign language translations

Publiée par Northern Ireland Executive sur Jeudi 10 septembre 2020

The same day as the duo’s press briefing, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) shared this statement from Foster on Twitter:

Statement by DUP Leader Arlene Foster MLA @DUPleader pic.twitter.com/Ozr8w6SMNV

— DUP (@duponline) September 10, 2020

“The Storey funeral fundamentally undermined the Northern Ireland Executive’s COVID-19 rules and confused our messaging.

“The public messaging was significantly undermined as a result of the attendance at the funeral by those who make laws and regulations.

“It is right that the Deputy First Minister has acknowledged the undermining of the public messaging as a result of what happened and the deep hurt and anger that was caused a result of Michelle O’Neill’s action. Those who set the rules must abide by them.

“Clearly those investigations and inquiries into the activities at the funeral which we instigated must continue and we look forward to their conclusions as soon as possible.

“Northern Ireland is facing very significant challenges as a result of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and  it is vital that as we move forward, we do so on the basis that our messages are clear and that the actions of everyone in leadership do nothing to undermine the collective efforts to beat COVID-19.”

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