The DUP has called for Michelle O’Neill to step aside as Stormont Deputy First Minister over her attendance at an IRA funeral that drew hundreds of people on to the streets.
First Minister Arlene Foster wrote to her partner in government on Thursday morning telling Ms O’Neill to stand down pending a police and Assembly investigation into the scenes at Bobby Storey’s funeral.
The move has plunged the recently restored powersharing institutions into crisis again, with four of the parties in the five-party coalition executive calling for Ms O’Neill to stand down.
The DUP’s Westminster leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson indicated Mrs Foster would not appear alongside Ms O’Neill for Thursday’s scheduled press conference on the coronavirus emergency.
The events have echoes of the cash-for-ash furore that pulled down the devolved government in 2017 when Mrs Foster refused to accede to a Sinn Fein call for her to stand down pending an investigation into a botched green energy scheme.
On Tuesday, she urged Ms O’Neill to apologise and make amends for what happened at Monday’s funeral in west Belfast.
The Deputy First Minister declined and defended her actions, insisting she acted within Covid-19 rules and guidance.
Sir Jeffrey said: “I think now is the time to step up and demonstrate respect and integrity.
“The law on these matters is clear and what happened at that funeral has sent out a very, very bad message to people in Northern Ireland.”
He told BBC Radio Ulster: “In light of the failure of Sinn Fein yesterday to grasp the opportunity to apologise, it is our view that the Deputy First Minister must now step back from her role while these matters are investigated by the PSNI.
“We will be asking the standards authorities in the Assembly to examine whether those MLAs who attended the funeral broke the code of conduct for MLAs, and we will also be asking the PSNI to specifically investigate any potential regulatory breaches by executive ministers including the Deputy First Minister.”
Sir Jeffrey said the DUP met on Thursday morning to agree the step.
Earlier on Thursday, SDLP leader Colum Eastwood also called for Ms O’Neill to step aside and allow her actions to be examined by Assembly standards authorities.
The Ulster Unionist Party and Alliance Party have also called for her to stand down after she and senior Sinn Fein colleagues were among hundreds who gathered for Mr Storey’s funeral.
Guidance set by the Northern Ireland Executive says a maximum of 30 people should attend a funeral, and friends should only attend when there are no family members in attendance.
Police are investigating potential breaches of lockdown rules.
Ms O’Neill has insisted the funeral cortege was limited to 30 while social distancing inside the church was “exemplary”. It is understood more than 100 people were inside the church.
On Wednesday, Ms O’Neill acknowledged that a selfie taken at the cemetery of her posing close to two men, one of whom had his arm on her shoulder, “should not have happened”.
She said the photo happened in a “blink of an eye” as she was leaving the graveside.
Mr Eastwood told Radio Ulster: “I think she should stand aside, she should refer herself to the standards authorities in the Assembly and let’s have a look at whether or not she did break the rules.
“I don’t want any more instability, I argued for three years for the Assembly to come back, but equally I don’t think that anybody should be above the law.
“The point isn’t that she accidentally broke some obscure piece of guidance, she broke the guidance that she set out, that she argued for, that she stood over and made the case for, rightly and sensibly. But then decided to set that all aside because I think, for Sinn Fein, they believe that there is one rule for them and one rule for everyone else, and that it is always movement first with them, and I think that is very hard for the public to take in.
“I couldn’t tell you how many people have contacted me furious about this, and remembering all of the sacrifices that they made during the most difficult days of this pandemic.”
Mr Eastwood said it had been hard for him and his party not to attend the funeral of SDLP veteran John Dallat in May.
He said he and other party members felt guilty for not standing with the Dallat family at that time, but emphasised it had been the right thing to do amid the pandemic.