Northern Ireland news

Unionist party leaders critical of 'significant' numbers at loyalist funeral

First Minister Arlene Foster stated everyone must be equal under the law, which currently says no more than 25 can attend a funeral
Rebecca Black, Press Association

Unionist leaders have slammed the "significant" number of mourners at a loyalist funeral despite coronavirus restrictions.

First Minister Arlene Foster stated everyone must be equal under the law, which currently says no more than 25 can attend a funeral.

Police said a "significant number of people gathered as part of the cortege" at the funeral of Hugh Hill in Belfast on Friday January 29 and have launched an investigation.

"It's a huge disappointment that people are not abiding by the rules, the rules are there for a reason, the rest of us abide by the rules and yet there are groups of people who believe that they are above the rules and that is wrong, everybody is equal under the law," Ms Foster told the BBC.

Ulster Unionist leader Steve Aiken said all funerals should be following the rules, and urged police to act.

"Police need to be much more visible in what they are doing because it is unacceptable no matter what side it comes from, it shouldn't be happening," he said.

Friday's funeral came after similar scenes at the send off for republican Eamonn "Peggy" McCourt in Derry on January 25.

The PSNI have confirmed they are investigating potential breaches of the regulations at both funerals.

Last year there was outrage when deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill was among scores of mourners who turned out despite lockdown rules for the funeral of Bobby Storey.

Ms Foster and Mr Aiken both queried why police are not intervening.

"We cannot be facilitating people to break rules," the DUP leader said.

"We need to see action and therefore we look forward to seeing that action in the very near future."

Mr Aiken said there has been no deterrent.

"We are not against people legitimately grieving for their families, but the rules are for 25, they are not for large scale displays," he told the BBC's Stephen Nolan Show.

"It's not just a question of being seen to enforce at paramilitary funerals, it is a public health issue, and that's what I find really concerning, that the Chief Constable doesn't seem to be able to get that.

"The PSNI should be enforcing the law, that is their job, and the fact that there seems to be two-tier policing is making many people from all parts of our community very unhappy with what is being done because there seems to be one law for them, and one law for everybody else. That is not acceptable."

SDLP MLA Matthew O'Toole said the message should be that whatever your background, the rules are there to keep everyone safe.

"There is a real frustration because of the sacrifices people have made," he said.

Mr O'Toole said it was "deeply wounding" for those who abided by the rules for funerals for their loved ones to see "others appear to break the rules, and those rules not be enforced".

In a statement at the weekend, Chief Inspector Darren Fox said officers had engaged with representatives of the family beforehand as well as local community representatives.

"Regrettably at the funeral on Friday morning, a significant number of people gathered as part of the cortege, in a manner likely to be in breach of the health protection regulations," he said.

"As a result, police have commenced an investigation into the matter, evidence has been gathered, and where individuals are identified as potentially being in breach of the regulations, they will be reported to the Public Prosecution Service."

Read more: Warning in the Republic over numbers congregating at funerals and graveyards

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