Northern Ireland news

Executive relaxed restrictions two days after Storey funeral

Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald (left) and Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill during the funeral of Bobby Storey at the republican plot at Milltown Cemetery in west Belfast. Picture by Liam McBurney/PA Wire

THE Executive did not relax restrictions on non-family members attending funerals until two days after Sinn Féin politicians including Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill attended the Requiem Mass for Bobby Storey, it has emerged.

Church leaders were only told in a letter dated July 3 about changes around funerals - the same day Ms O'Neill blamed "lack of understanding on behalf of the clergy".

The Sinn Féin deputy leader had insisted funerals were covered by new guidance on the re-opening of churches for public worship issued the night before the Mass at St Agnes's Church.

However, changes to which mourners are permitted to attend were not revised "at the Executive" until Thursday June 2 - two days after the controversial funeral scenes in west Belfast.

Senior Church figures had insisted latest advice from Stormont was that the Monday June 29 guidelines did not cover funerals and weddings.

Read More: Council apologises to eight families for not giving same cremation service as Bobby Storey

The Diocese of Down and Connor, which has responsibility for St Agnes's, was still applying a 10-person limit on funerals when Mr Storey's funeral took place, also believing funerals should be limited to family members.

Both Stormont's Covid-19 regulations and guidance outlined on Executive websites that day specified that friends of deceased people could only attend their funerals if members of their family or household did not attend.

Members of Mr Storey's family did attend on Tuesday.

A letter to Church leaders confirming that "the Executive agreed on Monday 29th that the number of people who may gather together outside was raised from 10 to 30 people" has been made public.

But it was dated Friday July 3 - the day Ms O'Neill blamed the confusion on their "lack of understanding" in relation to the events of three days earlier.

Co-signed by junior ministers Declan Kearney (Sinn Féin) and Gordon Lyons (DUP), the letter states that it "applies in a range of outdoor settings including for committals" and "those regulations have now been amended as of Monday night".

However, it reveals that it was not until an Executive meeting on Thursday July 2 that "it was agreed to remove the restriction in the regulations which required attendance at a committal to be linked to a close family member, in line with the larger number of people who may now gather outside".

It said "arrangements for funeral services inside places of worship were a combination of regulations which required places of worship to close, but enabled attendance inside for a funeral service".

According to attached guidance: "It is recommended that funeral directors liaise with the relevant officiant, clergy or venue manager to determine the maximum number that can be accommodated at the venue. This information should be communicated to the bereaved family when making the normal funeral arrangements".

The changes made the day before Mr Storey's funeral varied the guidelines for funerals only - a departure from previous directions which included weddings and baptisms.

The previous direction to the main Church leaders was sent by the junior ministers on Friday June 26 and clearly stated: "Weddings, baptisms and funerals are not covered by the advice below. The Executive will consider this further early next week."

In the July 3 letter ministers told the Churches "we realise this has been a complex and evolving picture and we remain grateful for your assistance" and said there will be "further discussions on weddings and baptisms shortly".

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