Northern Ireland

Gerry Kelly says potential breaches of coronavirus regulations at republican funeral must be 'fully investigated'

Gerry Kelly said potential breaches of Covid regulations at a republican funeral in Derry must be fully investigated. Picture by David Young/PA Wire
Gerry Kelly said potential breaches of Covid regulations at a republican funeral in Derry must be fully investigated. Picture by David Young/PA Wire

SINN Féin's Gerry Kelly has said potential breaches of coronavirus regulations at a republican funeral in Derry must be "fully investigated".

The North Belfast MLA's remarks came as he confirmed that "two or three" of the party's councillors were among mourners at Monday's funeral of Eamon 'Peggy' McCourt.

Mr McCourt (62), who died as a result of Covid-19, was a Sinn Féin activist and former IRA member.

Images of his funeral appeared to show a large crowd following a hearse flanked by two lines of mourners in white shirts.

Coronavirus restrictions mean the maximum number of people who can attend a funeral is 25.

Police who monitored the procession and gave advice to some attendees on the current restrictions said a "significant number of people" had gathered in a manner "likely to be in breach" of regulations.

Any evidence of breaches will be gathered for potential consideration by prosecutors, the PSNI said.

The outcry that has followed Monday's funeral has echoes of the controversy that came after Sinn Féin figures attended the funeral of IRA veteran Bobby Storey last June.

Speaking yesterday, Mr Kelly said Sinn Féin played no part in organising the funeral and that arrangements had be made by the family.

He told the BBC that while a small number of Sinn Féin representatives paid their respects "in a personal capacity", to his knowledge no party members were part of the cortège.

He said he was "fairly certain" no Sinn Féin assembly members were present and refuted social media speculation that his Foyle colleague Martina Anderson was among the mourners.

In regards to those who were in attendance, the North Belfast MLA said: "[These] are very difficult times, but any breaches of the public health regulations will and should be fully investigated."

It emerged last night that DUP Policing Board members have written to Chief Constable Simon Byrne, describing the scenes at Mr McCourt's funeral as "reckless" and undermining the public health message.

Referencing the funeral of Bobby Storey and other republicans, Mervyn Storey, Joanne Bunting, Trevor Clarke and Tom Buchanan claimed there is a "public perception that the PSNI is unwilling to apply the rule of law toward republicans in a manner that is fair and equitable".

"We question whether the same leniency would be shown to private citizens implicated in relatively minor breaches, particularly in relation to journeys from their home," the letter said.

"In this case, and indeed other high-profile funerals, the threat of disorder seems to have been a determining factor in the PSNI’s decision not to uphold the law."

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said he understood the McCourt family's grief but that those who gathered in a large crowd outside of the Covid restrictions had "abandoned their duty to their neighbours and to our community".

The Foyle MP called on all parties to send a clear message that the Covid-19 restrictions "apply to everyone equally".

"Thousands of families across our communities, and hundreds in Derry alone, have sacrificed the right to say goodbye to their loved ones during this crisis," he said.

"They have acted selflessly to protect their neighbours and friends and pictures like these will feel like a slap in the face."

Ulster Unionist MLA Doug Beattie called on the police to take "robust action".

"Clearly some people seem to have the bizarre and mistaken belief that republican funerals are somehow Covid-free zones,"he said.