Michelle O’Neill has rejected any suggestion of a link between alleged Covid-19 breaches at Rangers fans’ title celebrations and crowds that gathered for republican funerals during the pandemic.
Police are investigating events on Belfast’s Shankill Road on Sunday as crowds of Rangers supporters congregated to mark their team’s Scottish Premiership victory.
Some of those defending the gathering have justified it by pointed to large numbers that attended some republican funerals in apparent breach of coronavirus restrictions.
There have also been large crowds witnessed at some loyalist funerals during the pandemic.
Stormont deputy First Minister Ms O’Neill and other senior Sinn Fein figures faced intense criticism from political rivals after attending the funeral of prominent republican Bobby Storey last June.
The event, which was also subject to a police investigation, saw thousands of people lining the streets of west Belfast at a time when strict limits on the size of funerals were in place.
On Tuesday, Ms O’Neill was asked whether that funeral had set a precedent and emboldened others to gather in large numbers regardless of Covid-19 regulations.
“It’s not a zero sum game and I think it’s unfortunate that people will try to compare a funeral with what was sectarian chants and crowds of people on the street,” she said.
“So I would be more inclined to call out the sectarianism that I witnessed at the weekend and certainly what I saw on social media and just to say that it’s wrong but we all have a duty to try and follow the public health advice.
“We are in such a good place right now (in regard to the public health data).
“However, there’s no room for complacency and we all just need to keep at it, and we will get to the other end of this sooner rather than later with everybody’s support.”
Ms O’Neill commented on the Shankill Road scenes as she visited a vaccination centre at the Ulster Hospital with First Minister Arlene Foster and Health Minister Robin Swann.
Mrs Foster again stressed the need for people to abide by public health regulations.
She also expressed concern about the potential for large gatherings to mark St Patrick’s Day next week.
“We have concerns about that and I know that the taskforce in the executive are looking at St Patrick’s weekend to see what more it is we can do to try and stop these activities taking place, because they are putting not only themselves at risk, but their families and the community at risk,” said the DUP leader.
Ms O’Neill said the Executive would tailor specific messages for St Patrick’s Day, Mothering Sunday and Easter to encourage people to stick with the current rules.