Northern Ireland news

Churches report anger and upset over Sinn Féin Bobby Storey stance

Church sources have said they were unaware of a change in guidelines ahead of the funeral of Bobby Storey. Religious Affairs Correspondent William Scholes reports

Sean Hughes, Sean Murray, Gerry Kelly and Gerry Adams carry the coffin of Bobby Storey on Tuesday. Draft regulations circulated after the funeral recommend that coffin 'lifts' should not take place unless pallbearers all reside in the same house. Picture by Mal McCann

Among the most difficult and sensitive restrictions brought in to slow the spread of coronavirus were those around funerals - which is why Michelle O'Neill's insistence that Bobby Storey's funeral "was all done in accordance with the guidelines" has provoked such strong feeling.

Church sources have said privately that there is anger and upset over Sinn Féin's handling of funeral guidance because of the painful sacrifices that so many people have made during the pandemic.

Stormont's Executive Office confirmed last week that while churches could reopen their doors for public worship on Monday, this did not change the guidance around the conduct of funerals.

A letter signed jointly by junior ministers Gordon Lyons of the DUP and Declan Kearney of Sinn Féin and dated Friday June 26 set out advice provided by the Chief Medical Officer Dr Michael McBride and Chief Scientific Advisor Professor Ian Young.

READ MORE: Families of loved ones not permitted full funerals 'retraumatised' by crowds of mourners for Bobby Storey

It clearly stated: "Weddings, baptisms and funerals are not covered by the advice below. The Executive will consider this further early next week."

There was a firm expectation among the Churches that specific advice on weddings, baptisms and funerals would follow on Monday and be announced in that day's Executive Covid-19 briefing. This, however, did not happen.

In a statement last night, the Catholic Diocese of Down and Connor confirmed "that in full compliance with legislation and public health advice, guidance was issued by the diocese on June 4 2020 to parishes that attendance at funeral Masses inside churches was restricted to 10 mourners".

"This guidance was communicated to priests, funeral directors and all involved in the organisation of funerals," the diocese said.

It is understood that this included those involved in Bobby Storey's funeral, which took place in St Agnes's Church in Andersonstown on Tuesday.

While St Agnes's has reopened for private prayer, its final preparations for a return to public worship - although understood to be well progressed - have not yet been signed off by the diocese.

The parish bulletin of Sunday June 28 told parishioners that "Masses will resume as soon as the necessary health and safety precautions are in place. This may take a few weeks".

Sinn Féin deputy first minister Michelle O'Neill, speaking in Milltown Cemetery on Tuesday, said the funeral of Bobby Storey was "done in accordance with the guidelines"

Parish priest Fr Thomas McGlynn was unavailable to conduct the funeral after his brother died on Sunday. Instead, it was led by Passionist Fr Gary Donegan.

Following Mr Storey's Requiem Mass, which was attended by around 120 mourners, Bishop of Down and Connor Noel Treanor contacted the Executive Office seeking urgent clarification.

The diocese told The Irish News it "received notification of changes to the guidance concerning numbers attending funerals from the NI Executive Office" that evening.

It notified parishes of this updated guidance. This allowed more than 10 people to attend Noah Donohoe's funeral yesterday.

Other Churches are awaiting clearer direction before advising their clergy. The 'updated guidance' document is clearly marked 'draft' and, although received on June 30, is dated 'July 20'.

The Presbyterian Church said Churches had noted that at Monday's Covid-19 briefing - led by First Minister Arlene Foster and deputy First Minister Ms O'Neill - it was stated that the Executive "would be discussing weddings and funerals at its meeting on Thursday".

"In common with other churches, the Presbyterian Church in Ireland has an expectation that this will bring much needed clarity to the situation in these significant events for families."

The draft guidance says that as with regular Masses and church services, "the size and circumstances of the [funeral] venue will determine the maximum number that can attend the service safely whilst facilitating social distancing".

It states that "physical interactions including shaking hands and hugging should be avoided".

The draft guidance also addresses the carrying of coffins, saying: "It is recommended that coffin 'lifts' should not take place unless pallbearers all reside in the same house.

"It is unlikely that pallbearers would be able to maintain a 2-metre distance from each other, and such practices should not be permitted."

Down and Connor said it "continues to encourage and to call strongly upon all individuals to exercise personal and collective responsibility to ensure the health and safety of all".

"Since a PSNI inquiry is underway, it would be inappropriate for the diocese to make any further comment."

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