Images from Belfast service will have angered families unable to say goodbye to loved ones since March, writes Hugh O'Connell
THE decision by Mary Lou McDonald and senior Sinn Féin figures to attend the funeral of former IRA man Bobby Storey earlier this week has sparked a political crisis at Stormont and no shortage of anger across the island.
This story has resonance with the wider public because so many people have been forced to endure the pain of being unable to attend loved ones’ funerals in recent months as a result of the severe, unprecedented but necessary public health restrictions.
McDonald and others in Sinn Féin argue that because restrictions are being relaxed and certain protocols were followed, there was no issue with the scenes in West Belfast on Tuesday where hundreds and perhaps thousands lined the streets to pay their respects to Mr Storey.
Michelle O’Neill, the North’s Deputy First Minister, posed for selfies, Ms McDonald was snapped in some pictures too, while Pearse Doherty made the bizarre claim yesterday that the reported 1,800 people who attended engaged in social distancing.
The PSNI is taking it seriously enough to have launched an investigation into suspected breaches of Covid-19 social-distancing rules.
Ms O’Neill has been asked to stand aside by the North’s First Minister, DUP leader Arlene Foster, while this happens, but the Sinn Féin deputy leader has so far refused. A motion of no confidence has been tabled in the Assembly.
This is not dividing along nationalist and unionist lines. The SDLP and the Alliance Party have also called for Ms O’Neill to step aside.
It has marred McDonald’s first few days as leader of the main opposition party in the Dáil. Yesterday she announced her new frontbench team amid questions over this controversy. She did not apologise, nor did she express any regrets or feel the need to.
This is familiar territory for Sinn Féin, which once again finds itself strenuously defending its position, not willing to consider that it might have made a major error and throwing in a bit of whataboutery for good measure.
Some of the party’s TDs are privately pointing out that Government ministers attended the funeral of Detective Garda Colm Horkan last month - an example trotted out by an army of Sinn Féin activists on social media in recent days. .
Ms McDonald herself made reference to the late Mr Horkan’s funeral on RTÉ Radio last night. Earlier, she told reporters: “This is the problem when somebody is a public figure or where somebody dies in very tragic circumstances and very difficult circumstances - people will come out to pay their respects.”
She has described Mr Storey as “a friend” and a “great republican” whom she was pleased to have the opportunity to say goodbye to. She said she would do the same if she became Taoiseach.
The Sinn Féin leader’s friend was also named as the IRA’s director of intelligence in the House of Commons. He spent 20 years in jail, including for possession of a rifle following an attack on the British Army.
He was involved in masterminding the Maze prison escape in 1983 where one prison officer died from a heart attack and 20 others were injured. He was also said to have been involved in planning a number of robberies, including the notorious Northern Bank raid in 2004.
After his release from prison, he was a pivotal figure in selling the peace process to hardline republicans. In 2014, he was questioned over the disappearance of mother-of-10 Jean McConville. The following year he was detained over the murder of Belfast republican Kevin McGuigan. On both occasions he was released without charge.
Comparisons between the mourning of Mr Storey and a Detective Garda shot multiple times in the line of duty are questionable to say the least. Quite apart from that, Sinn Féin should have known that showing up en masse for the funeral of a controversial figure amid an ongoing pandemic would attract criticism.
Its refusal to countenance that it might have got things wrong has only compounded matters. It was the reason why the DUP escalated the crisis yesterday.
“They were given an out by Arlene and their whole performance was a near total rejection of it,” a DUP source said. “The anger is palpable and widespread everywhere. We had to move after they decided to brazen it out.”
There was an illuminating insight into Sinn Féin thinking yesterday when MLA Martina Anderson told O’Neill at a Stormont committee hearing: “The republican family needed you there yesterday because you give us comfort and guidance.”
But why should the republican family take precedence over families across the island who have not been able to say goodbye to those they have lost since March? It’s a question Sinn Féin appears happy to brush off - but it will not be forgotten by some voters.
When it comes to the deaths of those associated with Sinn Fein and the IRA, I don't adhere to the convention that one should postpone speaking ill of them.