Leaks ’caused deep sense of frustration’ at Stormont during Covid, says O’Neill

The continual leaking of Stormont Executive business during the coronavirus pandemic created a “deep sense of frustration” for the coalition’s leaders, Michelle O’Neill has said.

The First Minister, who was deputy first minister throughout the Covid-19 emergency, said the content of conversations inside Executive meetings were often tweeted out by media outlets in real time.

She said that lack of confidentiality presented a “huge challenge” for the devolved administration throughout the pandemic and it complicated the decision-making process around restrictions.

Ms O’Neill said she and then first minister Arlene Foster made efforts to halt the leaks. However, she said a Department of Finance investigation to try to identify the source or sources did not yield any results.

“So, I certainly did not have any practice whatsoever of leaking documents. But we frequently would have read reports of an ongoing meeting on social media whilst we were discussing things.

“I think we tried at one stage to get to the bottom of this. I think there was the Department of Finance look, a deep dive, to try to see if they could get to the bottom of this. I don’t think we were successful at that time.”

Ms O’Neill said the issue became more pronounced when meetings went from in-person encounters at Stormont to online discussions – some of which often involved up to 40 participants when special advisers and support staff were factored in.

“I don’t know where it came from, but it shouldn’t have happened, and it did make our job more difficult the whole way through,” she added.

Covid-19 pandemic inquiry
The First Minister was giving evidence at the Covid-19 inquiry in Belfast (PA)

“A lot of information seemed to find its way into the public, which really just didn’t help us to be able to arrive at a good position and also find consensus on positions, particularly because things were in the public space and parties or ministers were being asked to comment on different views of different things and then it just made things more complicated, more difficult,” said Ms O’Neill.

She added: “I think myself and Arlene went to great pains to try to advise people, to encourage them not to be engaged in leaking, that this was making all of our jobs more difficult, that it was forcing people into taking positions before they were properly interrogated or considered further.

“So it was a huge challenge for us for sure and it did endure.”

Ms O’Neill said a source of particular frustration for her and Ms Foster was Department of Health papers on the pandemic being leaked to the media before either of them had had sight of them.

She said that had led to instances where they were being questioned by the media on the contents of the papers without having seen them.

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