Arlene Foster defends pandemic leadership and says 'offensive' to say Northern Ireland sleepwalked into COVID

May 15, 2024

The former first minister of Northern Ireland Baroness Arlene Foster has defended her leadership of the territory during the pandemic.

While giving evidence to the COVID inquiry in Belfast, she said it was "offensive" to suggest Northern Ireland sleepwalked into the pandemic.

In an at times tense set of exchanges, Baroness Foster was asked questions by the inquiry's lawyer Clair Dobbin KC.

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Ms Dobbin claimed that the peer was attempting to "deflect" on several occasions - something that was denied by Baroness Foster.

The former leader said the pandemic was the "most difficult" period of her career.

There was a particular focus on the scrutiny carried out by Baroness Foster of the Northern Ireland executive's plans and readiness for a pandemic in early 2020.

The former first minister told the inquiry that - due to the way the executive was set up - her role is different from the leaders of the other devolved administrations.

She said the first minister did not scrutinise departments and minister in the same way, and much of the responsibility of pandemic rested within the nation's Department of Health.

Baroness Foster also highlighted that the executive in Stormont only reformed in January 2020 after three years of political impasse, which might have meant there was a lot of business to attend to - and claimed civil servants may have been out of practice working with politicians.

But asked by Ms Dobbin whether she accepted responsibility for what took place in Northern Ireland during the pandemic, Baroness Foster said: "Yes, of course I accept responsibility. I was first minister at the time."

During the evidence session, Baroness Foster stated several times that she did not request written briefings from the health minister, and instead was only given verbal information.

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She said that it was not within her powers to demand such documentation.

Asked if Northern Ireland was "sleepwalking" into the pandemic in early 2020, the DUP politician said it was "offensive" to suggest that.

She said that in mid-March, ministers were being advised that the peak of the first wave of COVID was still 14 weeks away - the first lockdown was put in place later that month.

Baroness Foster was also asked about events in November 2020, when the DUP used a cross-community veto mechanism to block the extension of some restrictions in the region.

This move was criticised at the time by other parties, like the DUP's coalition partners Sinn Fein.

Baroness Foster said relationships by that point in the pandemic were "very poor" - including due to the attendance of the deputy first minister Michelle O'Neill at the funeral of former IRA member Bobby Storey in June.

Ms O'Neill - who is now the first minister - apologised for going to the event when she gave evidence to the inquiry.

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