Sinn Féin has said it did everything it could to maintain social distancing at the funeral of senior republican Bobby Storey yesterday.
Senior party members, including Mary Lou McDonald, Michelle O’Neill and Pearse Doherty took part in the 64-year-old former IRA member’s funeral yesterday.
Hundreds of people failed to observe social distancing as they lined the streets in west Belfast; however, the party has dismissed criticism as “political point scoring.”
The Northern Executive's current guidelines on funerals state that social distancing should be practised at all times and a maximum of 30 family members or friends should attend.
On The Pat Kenny Show this morning, Sinn Féin finance spokesperson Pearse Doherty said that while there were restrictions in place, “you can’t control everything.”
“There were restrictions in place and those restrictions were abided to,” he said. “There was a restriction in relation to the number of people that could be part of the cortege, which was 30.
“That meant that a lot of people, close friends and extended family members could not participate in relation to the cortege.
“There were also restrictions in relation to the church where social distancing and limited numbers had to be in place and that was done.”
He noted that mourners wore masks inside the church and used hand sanitisers and said the party engaged with PSNI ahead of the funeral.
“That is why there were so many marshals,” he said. “That is why the route was lined all the way down [by people] maintaining social distancing and encouraging those others who came from the community to also maintain social distancing.
“But you can’t control everything.”
The PSNI has confirmed that it engaged with the funeral’s organisers and was assured that those attending would “observe the health guidelines and that marshals would be in place to encourage those lining the cortege route to observe social distancing.”
It said it is now reviewing footage of the funeral and will “consider any suspected breaches” of health regulations.
Deputy Doherty said Sinn Féin “went to great lengths” to ensure that COVID-19 guidelines were followed – noting that the procession was broadcast live on Facebook to allow people to participate form home.
“If Bobby’s funeral was last Sunday or last week, then I wouldn’t have been there,” he said. “Neither would Mary Lou McDonald because we would not have been allowed […] but thankfully those restrictions have eased over the last number of days.
“We tried to make sure that those that lined the roads were two metres apart but crowds started to turn up and they were behind those individuals on the footpath and that was an issue of concern.
“But that was why the marshals were there prompting and encouraging people to maintain social distancing which is all we can do in a scenario like this.”
"Political point scoring"
This afternoon Sinn Féin deputy leader Michelle O’Neill has insisted she followed public health guidelines while attending the funeral.
She said she would not be stepping down from her role as Northern Ireland’s Deputy First Minister over the controversy and said has “led from the front” throughout the pandemic.
“I will continue to lead from the front and I will continue to work within the regulations and I would encourage everybody to stick within the regulations and the guidance as we have set out,” she said.
“I am also very satisfied that I can strand over all of my actions as per the public health guidance and advice and I think it is unfortunate that a lot of the charges that are being levelled against me are political point-scoring as opposed to actually being about the rules.”
She said the guidelines were followed throughout the funeral mass and cortege and noted that the online stream of the funeral was “crucially important” in managing what could have been “even bigger crowd than was actually there.”
“Given the huge figure that Bobby Storey was, there was no doubt in my mind and in the family’s mind that whenever he passed, thousands upon thousands of people were going to want to come and play their part in the funeral,” she said.
So the organisers were able to provide an online stream of the funeral. That again was just to encourage people to watch it online. That shows you the scale of what the funeral could have been.”