Northern Ireland’s former first minister has said she was urged to “use the nuclear button” after then deputy first minister Michelle O’Neill attended a large-scale funeral during the coronavirus lockdown.

Ms O’Neill and other Sinn Fein ministers attended a funeral for senior republican Bobby 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.

Speaking at the Covid-19 Inquiry on Tuesday, Ms O’Neill apologised for having attended the funeral.

She told the inquiry that she was sorry “from the bottom of her heart” for the hurt her attendance at the funeral had caused to families of those who lost family members to the virus.

Ms O’Neill also acknowledged that relations in the Executive were damaged as well as public health messaging, adding she had had work to do to regain that.

Appearing at the inquiry on Wednesday, Baroness Foster welcomed that apology.

She told the inquiry she had felt personally upset by the incident, and that it caused difficulty in their working relationship, leaving her feeling unable to stand on a joint platform with Ms O’Neill for press conferences.

Stormont Assembly
Former deputy first minister Michelle O’Neill during the funeral of senior republican figure Bobby Storey (Liam McBurney/PA)

Baroness Foster also revealed that behind the scenes, she was being pressed to “hit the nuclear button”.

“It was a huge disappointment and indeed caused massive damage to the Executive, to the credibility of the Executive, to public messaging and was very hurtful to so many people around Northern Ireland who had stuck by what were very stringent rules around funerals and wakes,” she said.

“All of that had been prohibited and yet here was one of the people making the rules actually doing just that. It was a huge disappointment, personally I felt very upset about it all and I didn’t feel there was any credibility in going back to press conferences at that time.”

Baroness Foster said the joint press conferences restarted in September, when she said Ms O’Neill had “acknowledged the hurt that had been caused and in particular the damage to messaging”.

“Given where we were then going I felt it was important that we started to give those public messages again,” she said.

Later in her evidence Baroness Foster revealed: “Some people were pressing me to use the nuclear button at that point, in terms of the Executive.

Covid-19 pandemic inquiry
Baroness Foster leaving the Clayton Hotel in Belfast after giving evidence to the UK Covid-19 inquiry hearing on Wednesday (Niall Carson/PA)

“I felt that that was absolutely not the thing to do in the middle of a pandemic and that I had to stay and try and work through the difficulties that had arisen.

“I know there are some in my community who were wondering why I hadn’t called for the deputy first minister to resign, and I didn’t at that time.”

The former DUP leader went on: “I asked her to reflect and apologise, and I’m very glad that she has used the inquiry as a place to apologise. I think that that is the right thing to do and I’m pleased that that has happened.

“But be under no illusion that that was a moment of maximum risk and I had to try and manage internally my own colleagues, and externally as well.”

Covid-19 pandemic inquiry
Former PSNI chief constable Alan Todd gave evidence to the inquiry after Baroness Foster (Niall Carson/PA)

Former PSNI assistant chief constable Alan Todd, who led the police response to the pandemic, said the scenes at the Storey funeral made “life very difficult” for his officers.

He told the inquiry: “What happened on the day of Bobby Storey’s funeral was wrong. I said so at the time, I said so through the various investigations into it and I have said it every day since.

“I think the people who were involved in that have now come to that position.”

Mr Todd said he did not believe there was a policing solution to what had had happened at the funeral, pointing out that police had limited powers due to regulations in place at the time.

He said: “The notion that you would start to deploy large numbers of police with the potential for disorder and the requirement to exercise the use of force, it just becomes untenable.”

He added: “The police service took a lot of criticism. It made life very difficult for my officers.

“An emerging number of people who were seeking not to comply with the regulations had their case strengthened.”