What is the fresh crisis at Stormont all about?

Stormont has been rocked by a fresh political crisis six months after the powersharing institutions were restored.

Here are answers to some of the questions thrown up by the latest dispute to rock the devolved government in Belfast.

– Who is Bobby Storey?

<figcaption class='imgFCap'>Bobby Storey (Liam McBurney/PA)</figcaption>
Bobby Storey (Liam McBurney/PA)

The veteran republican and former leading IRA figure died last month at the age of 64 following a failed lung transplant.

A hate figure for unionists, he was widely respected in republican circles, particularly in his native west Belfast.

In normal times, his funeral would likely have drawn tens of thousands on to the streets.

– What happened at his funeral?

<figcaption class='imgFCap'>(L to R) Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald, former Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams, and Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill attending the funeral of senior Irish Republican and former leading IRA figure Bobby Storey in west Belfast (Liam McBurney/PA)</figcaption>
(L to R) Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald, former Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams, and Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill attending the funeral of senior Irish Republican and former leading IRA figure Bobby Storey in west Belfast (Liam McBurney/PA)

Despite coronavirus restrictions, many hundreds of people filled the streets to see Mr Storey’s cortege passed by.

Dozens and dozens of stewards lined the route to prevent crowds joining the procession.

Several leading Sinn Féin figures attended, including party president Mary Lou McDonald, vice president Michelle O’Neill, former president Gerry Adams, Stormont finance minister Conor Murphy and high-profile TD Pearse Doherty.

It is understood more than 100 mourners were inside St Agnes’ Church for Requiem Mass.

Images of the cortege’s journey through west Belfast showed multiple scenes where social distancing did not appear to be observed.

In one, Ms O’Neill was posing for a selfie in the cemetery, with two attendees in close proximity, one of them with his hand over her shoulder.

Police are investigating the alleged breaches of coronavirus lockdown rules.

<figcaption class='imgFCap'>Michelle O’Neill posing for a selfie with two attendees at Bobby Storey’s funeral (Lucan Sinn Féin/Facebook/PA)</figcaption>
Michelle O’Neill posing for a selfie with two attendees at Bobby Storey’s funeral (Lucan Sinn Féin/Facebook/PA)

– What are the regulations/guidance on funerals?

At the height of the lockdown in Northern Ireland, funerals were limited to 10 attendees.

A measure of confusion surrounds what guidelines were in operation on Tuesday and whether they applied to funerals.

Recently issued guidance on the resumption of church services allow for more than 10 people in the church, with numbers dependent on the size of the building involved.

However, that guidance did not initially include funerals, baptisms and weddings. An anticipated move to apply the new guidance to those events as well had not been publicly announced by Tuesday.

On Wednesday, the Diocese of Down and Connor said its churches should still have been applying the 10 attendee limits to funerals on Tuesday.

The diocese said it received an update from the Executive Office on Tuesday evening, advising it of amendments to guidance on funerals, lifting the cap on 10 people.

Apart from the debate on numbers, guidance on the NI Direct website also states that friends of the deceased should only attend a funeral service if no family members are in attendance.

<figcaption class='imgFCap'>Bobby Storey’s wife and sons arrive at St Agnes’ Church in west Belfast for his funeral (Liam McBurney/PA)</figcaption>
Bobby Storey’s wife and sons arrive at St Agnes’ Church in west Belfast for his funeral (Liam McBurney/PA)

Several of Mr Storey’s family attended Tuesday’s service.

Notably, this aspect of the funeral guidance is covered by a law in the coronavirus regulations, with people only allowed to leave their house to attend the funeral of a friend if family members of the deceased are not attending.

In respect to what happened outside the church, the Stormont regulations on Tuesday allowed for outdoor gatherings of up to 30 people.

– What are Sinn Féin’s critics claiming?

The party has faced a barrage of criticism from across the political spectrum in Northern Ireland.

They have portrayed the events in west Belfast as flagrant and dangerous breaches of the rules and guidance.

Four of the five executive parties – the DUP, SDLP, UUP and Alliance – have called on Ms O’Neill to step down pending an investigation.

Outside of the Executive, the Traditional Unionist Voice party has told Ms O’Neill to resign, while the Green Party has also said she should temporarily stand aside.

<figcaption class='imgFCap'>Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill is facing calls to step down pending an investigation into her attendance at Bobby Storey’s funeral (Liam McBurney/PA)</figcaption>
Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill is facing calls to step down pending an investigation into her attendance at Bobby Storey’s funeral (Liam McBurney/PA)

– What has Sinn Féin said?

Ms O’Neill robustly defended her actions during often heated exchanges before her Assembly scrutiny committee on Wednesday afternoon.

She differentiated between what the funeral organisers could control, namely the cortege and the service, and what they could not, namely the number of people who gathered on the roadsides.

Ms O’Neill said that, in respect of the things within her control, she acted in line with the rules and guidance. She cited the updated guidance that allows for more than 10 people to attend a funeral.

She did give ground on one issue, acknowledging that the selfie taken at the cemetery “should not have happened”.

She said it happened in a “blink of an eye” as she was leaving the graveside.

<figcaption class='imgFCap'>People taking part in a Black Lives Matter protest rally in Custom House Square, Belfast (Rebecca Black/PA)</figcaption>
People taking part in a Black Lives Matter protest rally in Custom House Square, Belfast (Rebecca Black/PA)

– Have similar things happened at other funerals during lockdown?

Undoubtedly. The numbers at some funerals, including several other republican ones, have been the source of public concern during the coronavirus emergency.

Other events, such as a number of Black Lives Matter demonstrations, have also seen large crowds gather in apparent breach of the regulations.

A key difference with Mr Storey’s funeral was that some of those involved were political leaders who are involved in making the rules.

– Can any of the other parties remove Michelle O’Neill from office without pulling down Stormont?

<figcaption class='imgFCap'>The only way Michelle O’Neill could be forced from office is if First Minister Arlene Foster quits herself (Kelvin Boyes/Press Eye/PA)</figcaption>
The only way Michelle O’Neill could be forced from office is if First Minister Arlene Foster quits herself (Kelvin Boyes/Press Eye/PA)

No. Under the powersharing structures, each party has responsibility for nominating their own ministers.

While the other four parties can call for Ms O’Neill to stand down, they cannot force her to do it.

The only way she could be forced from office is if First Minister Arlene Foster quits herself.

Mrs Foster and Ms O’Neill occupy a joint office and it cannot function unless they are both in position.

If Mrs Foster resigned that would automatically remove the Sinn Féin vice president from her role.

Such a move would be a mirror of what unfolded in January 2017, when the late Martin McGuinness resigned as deputy first minister, removing Mrs Foster as first minister.

<figcaption class='imgFCap'>Martin McGuiness’s resignation as deputy first minister in January 2017 caused the collapse of powersharing at Stormont (Liam McBurney/PA)</figcaption>
Martin McGuiness’s resignation as deputy first minister in January 2017 caused the collapse of powersharing at Stormont (Liam McBurney/PA)

– Is that nuclear option likely?

Not at the moment. Senior DUP figures have made clear they have no appetite to pull down the institutions over the issue.

However, 2017 demonstrated that things can escalate very quickly in Northern Ireland, with Stormont toppled over the head of a row about a green energy scheme.

At the moment it is unclear how either party can now emerge from this crisis without giving ground or being seen to lose face.

The laws of unintended consequences mean it is not beyond the realms of possibility that the latest crisis could escalate to a level that would endanger the institutions.

However, politicians know they would face a huge public backlash if Stormont was torpedoed during a major health emergency.

And that could be the crucial difference from 2017.