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Northern Ireland's O'Neill Rejects DUP Call to Step Aside

By Amanda Ferguson

BELFAST (Reuters) - Northern Ireland Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill rejected calls on Thursday by her partner in government, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), to stand down temporarily for allegedly undermining COVID-19 restrictions.

The DUP called for O'Neill to step aide pending a police probe into a funeral of a party member attended by O'Neill that attracted large crowds, threatening another political crisis in the region's power-sharing government.

The devolved executive led by the two parties was only restored in January after a three-year standoff between Sinn Fein and the DUP led to the suspension of the regional assembly formed as part of a 1998 peace agreement.

Northern Ireland First Minister Arlene Foster of the DUP had asked O'Neill to apologise after the funeral of party member and ex-Irish Republican Army (IRA) prisoner Bobby Storey attracted thousands of people onto the streets of Belfast.

O'Neill responded by saying she was very satisfied her actions were in line with public health advice and accused parties both in Northern Ireland and the Irish republic who criticised her of "petty attempts to political point score".

The DUP-Sinn Fein government collapsed in 2017 after Foster rejected Sinn Fein calls to step aside pending an investigation into the DUP's handling of a botched green energy scheme.

"Michelle O'Neill will not be stepping aside under any circumstances," a Sinn Fein spokesman said on Thursday after the DUP called on her to do so while police review footage for any suspected breaches of laws to control the spread of coronavirus.

Northern Irish police said they had engaged with the funeral organisers before Tuesday's service to highlight the public health advice and the requirement for those attending to adhere to social distancing.

"No one wants a political crisis. That is why we asked for, and respectfully gave, the Deputy First Minister the opportunity to apologise," senior DUP lawmaker Jeffrey Donaldson told BBC.

"Not only did she not do that... Her tone was arrogant and her behaviour was disrespectful of many who have sacrificed so much during this period."

(Writing by Padraic Halpin; Editing by Catherine Evans and Philippa Fletcher)

Copyright 2020 Thomson Reuters.

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