Northern Ireland

Fall-out from Bobby Storey funeral caused a political furore for almost a year

Veteran republican Bobby Storey. Picture by Justin Kernoghan, Photopress
Veteran republican Bobby Storey. Picture by Justin Kernoghan, Photopress

Wednesday will mark the first anniversary of veteran republican Bobby Storey's funeral. Claire Simpson looks at the year-long political fall-out from the event.


The funeral of veteran west Belfast republican Bobby Storey was always expected to draw large crowds.

But the attendance of almost 2,000 mourners at the peak of the coronavirus pandemic, including senior Sinn Féin figures, caused a political storm.

Rows over the funeral on June 30 last year prompted independent reports into how police handled the event and how Belfast City Council organised the cremation service at Roselawn crematorium.

PSNI Chief Constable Simon Byrne was pressurised by unionists to resign and the decision not to prosecute senior Sinn Féin politicians was even blamed for loyalist rioting over Easter this year.

Storey, a former IRA prisoner who was once the paramilitary group's intelligence chief, was one of the most prominent figures in the republican movement during the Troubles.

A former northern chairman of Sinn Féin, he was a close ally of former party president Gerry Adams and a key figure in the peace process.

First interned in April 1973 at the age of 17, he spent more than 20 years in prison, including on remand, over the next few decades.

In 1983, he was among 38 republicans who escaped from the high-security Maze prison in Co Antrim.

After his final release in 1998, Storey became heavily involved in developing Sinn Féin's political strategy.

He was credited as having a significant influence on the move towards peace amongst mainstream republicans.

Following an illness, he had lung transplant surgery in England but died in hospital at the age of 64 on June 21, 2020.

The first anniversary of his passing last week was marked by a low-key online commemoration by Sinn Féin.

The scale of the commemoration was in contrast to the huge crowds who turned out at Storey's funeral.

On June 30 2020, thousands of people lined the route from his home in west Belfast to the funeral service at St Agnes' Church on Andersonstown Road. Storey was cremated at Roselawn crematorium outside Belfast before being laid to rest in the republican plot at Milltown cemetery.

Mourners at the funeral included Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald, former leader Gerry Adams and Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill.

However, the funeral was criticised for drawing crowds at a time when large gatherings were not allowed and the number of mourners at funerals was heavily restricted.

Police later investigated possible breaches of coronavirus regulations at the event.

The Sinn Féin politicians who attended were blamed for undermining the executive's 'stay at home' message and unionists claimed the party had been shown preferential treatment.

Ms O'Neill later said she regretted that public health messages were undermined by the funeral. But she did not not apologise for attending.

In December, police submitted a file to the Public Prosecution Service into potential breaches of coronavirus rules.

The first of a series of reports into the event came in February this year.

An independent probe into the actions of Belfast City Council found that Sinn Féin did not pressurise council officials to give the Storey family special treatment.

Barrister Peter Coll's report dismissed claims there had been a 'takeover' of Roselawn by those acting on behalf of the family.

However, he said mistakes had been made and highlighted differences in the treatment of other families who had attended cremations on the same day as the Storey funeral.

The other families were not allowed to stand outside the crematorium, although up to 30 friends and relatives of Storey were allowed to do so.

In March, it was announced that no one would be prosecuted over the funeral.

The actions of 24 Sinn Féin politicians, including Ms O'Neill, were examined.

But the Public Prosecution Service said no prosecutions would be progressed.

Director of Public Prosecutions, Stephen Herron, said that while he understood concerns over the event, the Health Protection (Coronavirus Restrictions) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2020 had become "extremely difficult to navigate" because of various amendments, and were in some respects "inconsistent".

The decision prompted calls from unionist leaders for Chief Constable Simon Byrne to resign.

However, Mr Byrne said he would not stand down, adding that the funeral had been handled impartially by police.

Loyalist rioting over Easter was partly blamed on the decision not to prosecute anyone over the funeral. However, the disturbances were also sparked by rows over the post-Brexit Northern Ireland Protocol.

In May, a report by a police watchdog found no bias into how the PSNI handled the Storey funeral.

The probe by Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary found some flaws in the PSNI's approach but said they were not "especially serious failings".

However, unionists remained unhappy at the report and claimed it raised more questions than answers.