Northern Ireland deputy leader refuses to quit in funeral row

Deputy first minister Michelle O’Neill defends decision to attend top IRA man’s memorial

Northern Ireland’s deputy first minister, Michelle O’Neill, has defended her decision to attend the funeral of a former leading IRA figure during lockdown.

As pressure mounts on the Sinn Féin vice-president to stand down from the post, she expressed concern to families who lost loved ones during the pandemic and were unable to attend their funerals in large numbers.

O’Neill has been criticised by the four other parties in the cross- community Stormont government for her participation in the funeral on Tuesday of the IRA’s one-time director of intelligence Bobby Storey.

The crisis has become so potentially destabilising for the power-sharing government in Belfast that the Irish foreign minister, Simon Coveney, and Northern Ireland secretary, Brandon Lewis, held late-night telephone conversations with the leaders of the main parties in the assembly on Thursday. It is understood Coveney and Lewis implored the politicians not to allow the row to trigger a collapse of the administration.

Under the rules set down by the Northern Ireland executive, of which O’Neill is a member, a maximum of 30 people should attend a funeral. The rules also stipulate that friends of the deceased should only go if no members of the immediate family in are attendance.

In a statement released through Sinn Féin on Friday morning, O’Neill said she apologised to grieving families who were “experiencing more hurt over recent days”.

The pressure on the deputy first minister intensified on Friday after it emerged that a large event at the IRA plot at Milltown cemetery in Belfast to honour Storey, after a requiem mass, was not where he was later laid to rest.

Storey was in fact cremated on Tuesday afternoon at Roselawn cemetery in east Belfast. Family members will take his ashes to Milltown cemetery at a later date, reports say.

On top of O’Neill being accused of breaching social distancing by joining about 1,800 mourners at the Storey funeral, there was further public outrage when The Nolan Show on BBC Radio Ulster revealed on Friday morning that council staff were ordered by Belfast city hall to walk away from their jobs at Roselawn cemetery on Tuesday.

The council employees were replaced by “stewards” who controlled the gates into Roselawn after 2pm on Tuesday. There are allegations that these “stewards” were republican marshals under the control of Sinn Féin.

Belfast city council, which runs Roselawn, has refused to comment on events at the cemetery on Tuesday afternoon.

In her statement, O’Neill did not address these latest revelations but defended attending Storey’s funeral, during which she was photographed in a close-up selfie with two mourners.

Referring to the Storey funeral, she said: “He was my friend. At the foremost of my mind are all the families who are grieving. I have listened carefully to the voices of those who have lost loved ones. No family’s grief is more important than another’s.”

Hundreds gathered to honour Storey, who was part of a mass republican prisoner break-out from the Maze jail in 1983. Unionists, the cross-community Alliance party and the rival nationalist SDLP insisted the numbers were a clear breach of pandemic lockdown social distancing rules.

Doug Beattie, an Ulster Unionist assembly member, said the latest revelations that Storey was not buried in Milltown cemetery, where hundreds were gathered to hear a eulogy for the IRA figure from the former Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams, raised further questions for Sinn Féin.

“What was the point in taking a coffin to a graveyard only to then transport it to a crematorium? Were people’s lives really put at risk from Covid-19 just so Gerry Adams could perform a speaking engagement in Milltown cemetery?” Beattie said.


Henry McDonald

The GuardianTramp

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