Masked men flank coffin at funeral of former INLA prisoner Martin McElkerney
SEVERAL thousand people yesterday attended the west Belfast funeral of Martin McElkerney, with masked men flanking the cortège of the former INLA prisoner.
The 57-year-old died in hospital last Friday after a shooting incident in Milltown cemetery.
A packed St Peter's Cathedral in the Divis area of west Belfast was told that his family were "bewildered and distraught" by his sudden death.
Fr Gary Donegan, who is a friend of the family, said the "loss of many friends in the conflict had a profound influence on Martin’s decision to get directly involved in what is euphemistically referred to as ‘the Troubles’.
"Those were sad and difficult times, and are hardly recognisable 21 years after the Good Friday Agreement which saw Martin released from Long Kesh after a decade and a half of incarceration.
"Martin became aware that the choices he made in life had significant and lasting consequences for others, including his family.
"Following Martin's death his organs were donated so that others might have life."
Among the mourners were representatives of various republican political groups.
One of 13 children, the McElkerney family are well known in west Belfast, with Fr Donegan paying tribute to his mother Eileen.
"To witness the love of Eileen for her son Martin, and then to realise that God’s love is so much greater, how can we not be in awe of God’s mercy in this sacred place that is St Peter’s", he said.
Sinn Féin MLA Gerry Kelly, who is a brother-in-law of the deceased, attended the funeral and was joined by party colleague Carál Ní Chuilín.
After Requiem Mass the coffin, draped in a starry plough flag with a beret and gloves on top and flanked by an INLA colour party, some of whom wore masks, made its way the three miles from Albert Street to Milltown cemetery.
It stopped several times, including outside Costello House, the Falls Road headquarters of the IRSP, with whom McElkerney played a senior role right up until his death.
Police Land Rovers filmed the procession from a distance and a spotter plane, rarely used in Northern Ireland, circled overhead throughout the funeral.
As the cortege reached Milltown a piper played music before members of the IRSP gathered for a short oration at the INLA plot. By this stage the number of mourners had reduced to several hundred.
McElkerney was sentenced to three life terms for his part in an INLA bomb that killed Kevin Valliday (11), Stephen Bennett (14) and Lance Bombardier Kevin Waller (20) at the Divis Flats complex in west Belfast in 1982.
He was released in 2000 under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement.
Willie Gallagher of the IRSP addressed mourners and criticised media coverage of his friend's death, saying that far from being isolated he was surrounded by family and friends.
He also said there was not enough support for those struggling in a society transitioning out of conflict.
PSNI Superintendent Lorraine Dobson last night said police had "a proportionate operation in place today which included the use of evidence gathering equipment".
"All evidence will now be reviewed by specialist officers and any offences detected will be investigated".
On Monday a masked man fired a volley of shots in the air from an automatic rifle as the remains of McElkerney were returned to his home in the Divis area of Belfast.
A guard of honour was also formed in the street outside his home.
Unionists have called for investigation into both the shooting and the funeral display, saying it appeared to be a "sinister show of strength".
Ulster Unionist Party MLA Doug Beattie said; "You have to wonder if there is something else going on here and is this group sending a message that they are still here and still able to bring large numbers of people onto the streets.
"If this organisation is on ceasefire why are young men in the colour party? There is clearly recruitment going on and that is very worrying
"I've written to both the Secretary of State and the Chief Constable to ask for another updated security assessment of where these groups are in terms of activity."