By Rebecca Black and Gráinne Ní Aodha, PA

Northern Ireland’s First Minister Michelle O’Neill has apologised for attending a large-scale funeral for veteran republican Bobby Storey during the coronavirus pandemic.

The then-deputy first minister and a number of Sinn Fein ministers attended the funeral of Mr Storey in west Belfast in June 2020 when there were restrictions on social gatherings.

Footage of large crowds gathered on the streets for the send-off sparked controversy at the time, and the UK Covid-19 Inquiry has heard evidence that it chilled relations within the Stormont Executive.

This included the ending of the joint Covid-19 press conferences with Ms O’Neill and the then first minister Arlene Foster.

Giving evidence to the inquiry on Monday, Health Minister Robin Swann suggested it contributed to the public losing confidence in the Executive.

Appearing at the inquiry on Tuesday, Ms O’Neill said she was sorry for having gone to the funeral, and sorry for the harm that was caused.

“I know that my actions also angered the families and for that I’m truly sorry. I am sorry for going and I’m sorry for the harm that’s been caused after (it),” she said.

Asked if she realised the anger that going to the funeral would cause, she said: “I didn’t but I ought to have.

“I’ve said it publicly on a number of occasions about how sorry I am and I am absolutely, from the bottom of my heart, sorry.

“I do accept wholeheartedly that I in some way damaged our Executive relations with colleagues who had been working very hard with me the whole way through, and I also accept wholeheartedly that I damaged the public health messaging and I had work to do to regain that.”

Inquiry chairwoman Baroness Hallett put to Ms O’Neill that her criticisms of former prime minister Boris Johnson and allegations of lockdown parties at Downing Street were “hypocritical”.

Ms O’Neill responded: “I don’t think so because they are two very different things in terms of the Boris Johnson approach of partying the whole way through the pandemic and drinking their way through it, to be quite blunt.”

Baroness Hallett said: “We didn’t find out about the partying until after the pandemic, what you did was to do something the normal bereaved couldn’t do because you wanted to go to a friend’s funeral. Isn’t saying that what Boris Johnson’s government did was wrong sort of hypocritical?”

Ms O’Neill replied: “No, I don’t think so because what I did I did under the understanding of the regulations at that time.”

“But I do accept wholeheartedly that I in some way damaged our Executive relations with colleagues who had been working very hard with me the whole way through.

“I also accept wholeheartedly that I damaged the public health messaging, and I had work to do to regain that. But I did that, I worked hard to regain that trust and confidence and to lead us for the next year and a half through the pandemic.”

Baroness Hallett said she was pressing because “the point of principle is that those who set the rules should obey the rules, both in spirit and in the letter”.

Ms O’Neill: “Yes, I should have anticipated the outworking of what I did.”

She added that she attended the funeral on a personal invitation, with a cortege of 30 people.

“That’s the basis on which I attended but I am sorry, I am sorry. I should have anticipated what would happen in the aftermath and that is why I worked hard to try to regain that confidence and trust,” she said.

“Equally and more importantly, I think it’s about all the families of bereaved and people who went through horrific circumstance and the experience that they’ve had. It’s just horrendous and I would never set out to try to compound that or in any way make it more difficult for them to deal with their grief.”

Last week, former communities minister Caral Ni Chuilin gave an apology for attending the funeral while appearing at the inquiry.

The Sinn Fein MLA accepted she should not have gone to the funeral during lockdown and apologised to the families who lost a loved one.

“I am very sorry. I absolutely do see the impact and I also recognise that people were more than angry. I accept that and I really am sorry,” she told the inquiry last Wednesday.

In July 2020, Ms O’Neill acknowledged some grieving families had been hurt by her actions, but said: “I will never apologise for attending the funeral of my friend”.

In April 2021, Ms O’Neill offered a “heartfelt and unreserved apology” to families bereaved in the pandemic for her actions in relation to attending the funeral.

It came when the Assembly was recalled from Easter recess to debate a motion of censure against her.

Ms O’Neill told MLAs she was “truly sorry” for the hurt caused to those who had lost loved ones.

However, Ms O’Neill was then criticised for her apology not including an admission that she had been wrong to attend the funeral when strict limitations on public gatherings were in place.

During Tuesday’s evidence session, Ms O’Neill also denied “playing politics” during the coronavirus pandemic.

She told the inquiry she believed she gave good leadership during the health emergency.

Ms O’Neill was shown a tense exchange of WhatsApp messages between herself and Ms Foster from March 2020.

In them, Ms Foster challenged Ms O’Neill over criticism she had made of Health Minister Robin Swann amid the debate on whether schools should be closing.

The then First Minister told Ms O’Neill her “public undermining” of Mr Swann was “totally uncalled for”.

“If you want to effect change in a policy you are going completely the wrong way about it. You are playing politics when things are much too serious,” she wrote.

“It is hugely disappointing but unfortunately I’m not surprised.”

Ms O’Neill responded in the exchange: “It’s too serious to tolerate. Lives will be lost. Start listening.”

Giving evidence to the inquiry about the messages, Ms O’Neill rejected the suggestion she was playing politics.

“We had a difference of approach, that’s not politicking, (it’s) about what’s the right way and what’s the wrong way,” she said.

“As I said, I refute the allegation of playing politics, this was about what I thought was the right thing to do.”