Covid Inquiry: Jibes at other ministers among DUP WhatsApps

Whatsapp logo
[Getty Images]

More than 60 pages of WhatsApp messages between Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) ministers have been published by the UK Covid-19 Inquiry.

The messages give an insight into the thoughts of some of the party's most senior figures as the pandemic spread.

The WhatsApp group chat covers the period between January and November 2020.

No internal messages between Sinn Féin politicians have been published by the inquiry.

Michelle O'Neill, whose Whatsapp messages from this period were wiped from the devices issued to her as deputy first minister, has told the inquiry that she accepts that these messages should not have been deleted.

"I accept that I should have kept my additional exchanges, in particular with Arlene [Foster], and anything else that was relevant," she said.

But DUP politicians' messages have been published and they are often candid. They include jibes at ministers from other parties in Stormont's executive.

On 17 January, six days after the executive was restored following a three-year-hiatus, a person whose name has been redacted by the inquiry wrote: "SF [Sinn Féin] doesn't seem to have matured at all!"

Emma Little-Pengelly, who was then a DUP special adviser and is now deputy first minister, replied with apparent sarcasm.

"Well, why not - let English taxpayers subsidise our free prescriptions, lower rates, no water charges, lower tuition fees and free prescriptions.. but hey, how dare you guys starve us of funding #Perfidious Albion," she wrote.

'Catholic church hasn't the best track record'

Lord Weir, who was education minister at the time, commented on 13 March about the head of the Catholic Church in Ireland writing to him to call for schools to be closed.

The DUP minister said of the Archbishop of Armagh, Eamon Martin: "Wasn't aware of his qualifications in virology."

A person whose name has been redacted replied: "Write back and tell him we don't live in the South [Republic of Ireland] and that his institution hasn't the best track record of looking out for the welfare of kids."

On 14 March, there was criticism of Sinn Féin deputy leader Michelle O'Neill, who was deputy first minister at that time, after she broke ranks with the executive to call for school closures.

Emma Little-Pengelly and Edwin Poots
Emma Little-Pengelly and Edwin Poots were among those who exchanged messages in the group [PA Media]

Edwin Poots, the DUP agriculture minister at the time, acknowledged that schools would have to close at some point, but said the "response needs to be measured and reassuring".

On 17 March, as the pandemic became more acute, Mrs Little-Pengelly proposed a "four-nations press conference" with the prime minister.

"All devolved regions with PM on televised conference to reassure people," she wrote.

Mrs Little-Pengelly said the public "need to see leaders speaking", adding that "any confusion compounds panic".

Naomi Long 'hard to listen to'

Some messages point towards tensions between executive ministers during meetings to discuss the pandemic.

There were several jibes at Justice Minister Naomi Long, leader of the Alliance Party.

Naomi Long
DUP members discussed Alliance leader Naomi Long [PA Media]

On 7 May, Lord Weir said Mrs Long was "hard to listen to", and on 23 July he wrote: "Naomi talking about wind instruments - oh the irony!"

On 9 November, Lord Weir said Ms O'Neill was "making a pig's ear of this" to which Mr Poots replied: "Comes naturally."

'Sour bake'

On 6 August, Lord Weir appeared to refer to an exchange between Mr Poots and Nichola Mallon, at the time the Social Democratic and Labour Party's minister in the executive.

A person then wrote: "Edwin you managed to take her from zero to skywards v v quickly!!"

Mr Poots replied: "It's a speciality of mine. Enjoying the sour bake on her face now."

In another message on 15 June which appears to reference Sinn Féin Junior Minister Declan Kearney, Lord Weir wrote: "Where would we be without Declan's philosophical musings."

A person whose name is redacted replied: "At a shorter meeting."