What is the fresh crisis at Stormont all about?

You are viewing content from Q Tyrone and Fermanagh 101.2. Would you like to make this your preferred location?

By David Young, PA

Stormont has been rocked by a fresh political crisis six months after the powersharing institutions were restored.

Here are answers to some of the questions thrown up by the latest dispute to rock the devolved government in Belfast.

- Who is Bobby Storey?

The veteran republican and former leading IRA figure died last month at the age of 64 following a failed lung transplant.

Bobby Storey

A hate figure for unionists, he was widely respected in republican circles, particularly in his native west Belfast.

In normal times, his funeral would likely have drawn tens of thousands on to the streets.

- What happened at his funeral?

Despite coronavirus restrictions, many hundreds of people filled the streets to see Mr Storey's cortege passed by.

Dozens and dozens of stewards lined the route to prevent crowds joining the procession.

Several leading Sinn Fein figures attended, including party president Mary Lou McDonald, vice president Michelle O'Neill, former president Gerry Adams, Stormont finance minister Conor Murphy and high-profile TD Pearse Doherty.

Scene as Bobby Storey's coffin was taken to St Agnes' Church

It is understood more than 100 mourners were inside St Agnes' Church for Requiem Mass.

Images of the cortege's journey through west Belfast showed multiple scenes where social distancing did not appear to be observed.

In one, Ms O'Neill was posing for a selfie in the cemetery, with two attendees in close proximity, one of them with his hand over her shoulder.

Police are investigating the alleged breaches of coronavirus lockdown rules.

- What are the regulations/guidance on funerals?

At the height of the lockdown in Northern Ireland, funerals were limited to 10 attendees.

A measure of confusion surrounds what guidelines were in operation on Tuesday and whether they applied to funerals.

Bobby Storey's funeral cortege

Recently issued guidance on the resumption of church services allow for more than 10 people in the church, with numbers dependent on the size of the building involved.

However, that guidance did not initially include funerals, baptisms and weddings. An anticipated move to apply the new guidance to those events as well had not been publicly announced by Tuesday.

On Wednesday, the Diocese of Down and Connor said its churches should still have been applying the 10 attendee limits to funerals on Tuesday.

The diocese said it received an update from the Executive Office on Tuesday evening, advising it of amendments to guidance on funerals, lifting the cap on 10 people.

Apart from the debate on numbers, guidance on the NI Direct website also states that friends of the deceased should only attend a funeral service if no family members are in attendance.

Several of Mr Storey's family attended Tuesday's service.

Notably, this aspect of the funeral guidance is covered by a law in the coronavirus regulations, with people only allowed to leave their house to attend the funeral of a friend if family members of the deceased are not attending.

In respect to what happened outside the church, the Stormont regulations on Tuesday allowed for outdoor gatherings of up to 30 people.

- What are Sinn Fein's critics claiming?

The party has faced a barrage of criticism from across the political spectrum in Northern Ireland.

They have portrayed the events in west Belfast as flagrant and dangerous breaches of the rules and guidance.

Four of the five executive parties - the DUP, SDLP, UUP and Alliance - have called on Ms O'Neill to step down pending an investigation.

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood MP is one of the politicians calling for Michelle O'Neill to step aside

Outside of the Executive, the Traditional Unionist Voice party has told Ms O'Neill to resign, while the Green Party has also said she should temporarily stand aside.

- What has Sinn Fein said?

Ms O'Neill robustly defended her actions during often heated exchanges before her Assembly scrutiny committee on Wednesday afternoon.

She differentiated between what the funeral organisers could control, namely the cortege and the service, and what they could not, namely the number of people who gathered on the roadsides.

Ms O'Neill said that, in respect of the things within her control, she acted in line with the rules and guidance. She cited the updated guidance that allows for more than 10 people to attend a funeral.

She did give ground on one issue, acknowledging that the selfie taken at the cemetery "should not have happened".

The selfie that MIchelle O'Neill said "shouldn't have happened"

She said it happened in a "blink of an eye" as she was leaving the graveside.

- Have similar things happened at other funerals during lockdown?

Undoubtedly. The numbers at some funerals, including several other republican ones, have been the source of public concern during the coronavirus emergency.

Other events, such as a number of Black Lives Matter demonstrations, have also seen large crowds gather in apparent breach of the regulations.

Black Lives Matter protest

A key difference with Mr Storey's funeral was that some of those involved were political leaders who are involved in making the rules.

- Can any of the other parties remove Michelle O'Neill from office without pulling down Stormont?

No. Under the powersharing structures, each party has responsibility for nominating their own ministers.

While the other four parties can call for Ms O'Neill to stand down, they cannot force her to do it.

The only way she could be forced from office is if First Minister Arlene Foster quits herself.

Arlene Foster and Michelle O'Neill together pictured together last month

Mrs Foster and Ms O'Neill occupy a joint office and it cannot function unless they are both in position.

If Mrs Foster resigned that would automatically remove the Sinn Fein vice president from her role.

Such a move would be a mirror of what unfolded in January 2017, when the late Martin McGuinness resigned as deputy first minister, removing Mrs Foster as first minister.

- Is that nuclear option likely?

Not at the moment. Senior DUP figures have made clear they have no appetite to pull down the institutions over the issue.

However, 2017 demonstrated that things can escalate very quickly in Northern Ireland, with Stormont toppled over the head of a row about a green energy scheme.

The previous collapse of the Stormont executive led to the Renewable Heat Incentive Inquiry

At the moment it is unclear how either party can now emerge from this crisis without giving ground or being seen to lose face.

The laws of unintended consequences mean it is not beyond the realms of possibility that the latest crisis could escalate to a level that would endanger the institutions.

However, politicians know they would face a huge public backlash if Stormont was torpedoed during a major health emergency.

And that could be the crucial difference from 2017.

More from Q Radio Local News


Join the Thank Q Club

Sign up for the Thank Q Club and receive exclusive offers, fun competitions and amazing prizes - it's quick and easy to do!

Sign Up Log In

Listen on the go

Download the Q Radio app to keep listening, wherever you are! It's available on Apple and Android devices.

Download from the App Store Download from Google Play