Sinn Fein leaders have apologised to families of those who died during the coronavirus lockdown for any hurt caused by the controversy over their attendance at an IRA veteran’s funeral.
Party president Mary Lou McDonald and vice president Michelle O’Neill both said sorry on Friday morning.
Ms O’Neill is facing calls from the other four parties in the five-party Executive at Stormont to stand down as Deputy First Minister pending police and Assembly standards investigations into the scenes at Bobby Storey’s funeral, when hundreds gathered in west Belfast to say farewell to the senior republican.
She and party colleagues have been accused of flouting the Covid-19 regulations and guidance they helped to set.
The claims have been denied, with Ms O’Neill insisting she acted within the rules in respect of all the things that were within her control, such as the size of the cortege and the numbers attending inside St Agnes’ Church.
The leaders of the five main Executive parties at Stormont met on Friday morning in an effort to resolve the row.
Ms O’Neill later issued a statement apologising for the hurt caused to any grieving families. But she restated her view that she had done nothing wrong.
The Deputy First Minister said she had listened very carefully to the voices of those who had lost loved ones.
“No family’s grief is more important than another’s,” she said.
“I am particularly concerned that grieving families who have lost a loved one during the pandemic had their heartache compounded by the necessary restrictions which were in place at that time.
“Not being able to have their family and friends’ support to help them through was hugely difficult.
“I am also concerned that those grieving families are experiencing more hurt over recent days. I am sorry for that.”
Earlier, party president Mrs McDonald she wanted to apologise to anyone who was hurt by the gathering.
“I am acutely conscious of everyone who has lost a loved one and buried them in the most difficult and heart-breaking and lonely of circumstances at the heart of the pandemic,” she told Newstalk.
“The very fact that people could not have church services, if that is what they wished, or even enter cemeteries or crematoriums, was incredibly, incredibly hard.
“Can I also say that I do understand that looking at the images of very busy pathways in west Belfast and taking all of that in obviously has jolted and has caused some hurt among some of those families, and for that I am very sorry.”
Ms O’Neill insisted that Northern Ireland’s coronavirus regulations did not prevent her from attending Mr Storey’s funeral.
“If the regulations had prevented me from attending his funeral, I would have obeyed those regulations,” she said.
“At the funeral and Mass I kept to the regulations, as I have advised others to do.
“The PSNI will look into all of this.
“It is unfortunate that this matter has divided the Executive.
“We have important work to do and I firmly believe that all the parties of the Executive are committed to this and to powersharing.
“We have made good progress in this despite all the difficulties. My commitment is to continue this work.
“Covid-19 is still with us and I will continue to lead us through this and in to recovery.”