Northern Ireland news

Michelle O'Neill says 'I would never compound any family's grief and I said I was sorry for that' as Bobby Storey funeral row continues

Sinn Féin vice president Michelle O'Neill speaking in Milltown Cemetery at a ceremony for veteran republican Bobby Storey
Michael McHugh and David Young, Press Association

Michelle O'Neill said she has not been contacted by police following the Bobby Storey funeral.

The deputy first minister attended Requiem Mass for the veteran republican on Tuesday June 30.

Hundreds lined the route in west Belfast and First Minister Arlene Foster said it turned into a political rally and added Belfast City Council had questions to answer about the cremation.

Police are investigating whether breaches of the coronavirus social distancing regulations occurred. Read more

The Sinn Féin deputy vice-president told the Assembly today: "I would never intentionally hurt anyone, I would never compound any family's grief and I said I was sorry for that."

Belfast City Council has apologised to eight families denied the same cremation service as IRA veteran Bobby Storey on the day of his funeral. Read more

Mr Storey's service at Roselawn Cemetery in east Belfast last week was the only one of nine that day where 30 people were allowed to attend an outdoor committal service on site. The other eight cremations were not allowed services at the site.

Coronavirus regulations on outdoor gatherings changed from 10 to 30 people late the day before.

Prior to that the council was allowing 10 people to attend burials but no-one was permitted to attend committal services after cremations on site.

 The funeral of Bobby Storey. Picture by Mal McCann

Ms Foster asked why the cortege proceeded to Milltown cemetery in west Belfast when Mr Storey's remains were being cremated in east Belfast.

She added: "It did turn into a political rally."

She said Belfast City Council should explain why 30 people were allowed to attend Mr Storey's cremation.

"Nobody else was allowed that.

"There are a lot of questions to be answered and we will be pursuing this through our group at Belfast City Council."

On the morning of the funeral, the council increased the capacity for burials, enabling 30 people to attend the four burials that day.

However, the council said it took an operational decision to apply the new rules for cremations from the point of Mr Storey's service onwards - 3.30pm on the afternoon of Tuesday June 30.

This meant that eight cremations which took place earlier that day had no-one in attendance, even though the law had already been changed to allow 30.

The council said its decision was an "error of judgment".

Tomorrow evening Assembly members will debate a motion expressing: "Disappointment in the actions of those in ministerial office who breached public guidance and failed to share in the sacrifice that we have asked of others."

Ms Foster said: "It allows the Assembly its place in terms of what is going on.

"It allows the Assembly members to ask the question that people have been asking them."

She said bereaved constituents were angry, upset and distressed because they could not have what they considered to be proper funerals for their loved ones yet Ms O'Neill and others were able to attend a funeral of such significant magnitude.

The council had already faced criticism last week after it emerged that some staff had been sent home early from Roselawn ahead of Mr Storey's cremation and that the remaining cremation slots in the day were blocked off for bookings in the period after his service.

The latest revelations were aired on BBC Radio Ulster's Nolan Show.

The council said: "Council has apologised unreservedly to eight families who were not afforded the option to have up to 30 people at an outdoor committal service following the cremation of their loved one on Tuesday 30 June.

"Executive regulations were changed for outdoor services on Monday June 29, coming into effect at 11pm.

"Council was informed by the Executive Office on Monday afternoon, enabling us to start communications with funeral directors. This is normal practice.

"This was a rapidly changing environment, as has been the case during the response to Covid-19, as rules change frequently.

"An operational decision was made that, for cremations, the new procedures would apply from the cremation of Bobby Storey on the afternoon of Tuesday June 30 onwards, and this was the case from Wednesday.

"We accept in hindsight that this was an error of judgment.

"This meant that only one of the nine cremation services on Tuesday June 30 had 30 people in attendance.

"There were four burial services and these burial services had up to 30 in attendance.

"There were eight cremation services affected.

"We are in the process of contacting these families and are deeply sorry for how this error will have affected them and any hurt and distress caused.

"Belfast City Council made an operational decision to hold the last three cremation slots of the day on Tuesday June 30.

"This decision was made in order to ensure that there were no other cremations later that day in order to protect the privacy of other members of the public and their cremation services.

"Belfast City Council did not know whether to anticipate high numbers or otherwise and therefore planned for all circumstances.

"It is normal practice in the event of a high-profile cremation to hold slots."

It added: "Operational decisions like these made by Belfast City Council are made impartially in what is often a complex and difficult political environment."


Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald, former Sinn Fe
éin leader Gerry Adams, and Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill attending the funeral of former leading IRA figure Bobby Storey in west Belfast

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