Fine Gael TD Jennifer Carroll MacNeill has accused the Sinn Féin leadership of making deliberate and very different choices about how social distancing rules should apply following the funeral of Bobby Storey, former IRA member and later senior Sinn Féin figure.
Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald and the North’s Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill were among high-profile party members in attendance at the service and later commemoration event at Milltown cemetery.
Speaking on Newstalk Breakfast, Ms Carroll MacNeill said: “To knowingly and willingly participate in an event that was always going to have the potential to be very large and to not remove yourself from that, it just smacks of making deliberate and very different choices about how the rules are applied.”
Sinn Féin TD Matt Carthy responded that using a funeral to make a political point was “a new low”. He said: “There’s an attempt by people like Jennifer to dehumanise Republicans and Sinn Féin members as if we haven’t been through the exact same stresses and anxieties as every other member of the community.
“In a despicable manner Fine Gael are using the funeral of a very well-liked and much-loved man for political ends. I think that’s really disappointing and people will see through it.”
Ms Carroll MacNeill said she had a sense in recent days that Sinn Féin were taking a different approach about regulations and rules. Senior party figures had gone to Belfast to participate in a funeral that always had the potential to be a very large funeral.
“That follows up Saturday at the Convention Centre where Michelle O’Neill travelled down for the Taoiseach’s nomination which seemed to be completely unnecessary when you think about Micheál Martin not even bringing his own family, his own wife and children, to come and celebrate with him on the day that he comes Taoiseach,” she said.
Mr Carthy said that the organisers of the funeral did everything they could to try and ensure that all the regulations and guidelines were adhered to. “There was a requiem Mass at which 30 people were in attendance and that was where Mary Lou McDonald, Michelle O’Neill and Pearse Doherty were part of that small group, the organisers had arranged that only that 30 would follow the hearse. They had made arrangements that if people wanted to attend at some point along the line, they would be in place.”
But the number of people that showed up had surprised the organisers who had broadcast the funeral online to try and minimise the number of people in attendance.
On Tuesday, the North’s health minister said the presence of Sinn Féin leaders among thousands of mourners who congregated for the funeral must not become Northern Ireland’s “Dominic Cummings moment”.
Robin Swann said the scenes in west Belfast on Tuesday, where roadsides were packed with people as the cortege carrying Mr Storey’s remains passed by, was a clear breach of Stormont restrictions limiting public gatherings to 30 people.
Mr Swann said the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) was investigating.
PSNI Superintendent Melanie Jones said on Tuesday: “We were made aware of the plans for today’s funeral and have engaged with the celebrant and service organisers to highlight both the public health advice and risks around Covid-19, and the requirement for those attending to adhere to social distancing.
“We had assurances 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.
“We will now review footage gathered during the funeral and will consider any suspected breaches of the Health Protection (Coronavirus Restrictions) Regulations NI 2020.”
Ms O’Neill in particular has faced strong criticism from political rivals in Northern Ireland, given her role as the joint head of a Stormont Executive that has been instructing people to limit the size of funerals during the lockdown.
Traditional Unionist Voice leader Jim Allister insisted Ms O’Neill’s position was no longer tenable, while DUP MLA Jonathan Buckley raised a point of order in the Assembly questioning whether she had broken the members’ code of conduct.
Mr Swann’s weekly Covid-19 media conference was later dominated by the issue, with the health minister challenged on whether the executive’s credibility had been undermined.
He was asked if the incident could lead the public to question the point of abiding by the rules — the way some people did after the Prime Minister’s top adviser Mr Cummings was accused of breaching regulations during a trip to the north west of England during lockdown.
“I’m concerned with what I saw this morning in west Belfast,” he said.
“What we are seeing today was a breach of the guidance that has been issued and has been worked on by the executive and has been supported by the executive.”
He added: “I sincerely hope that this isn’t the Dominic Cummings effect in Northern Ireland because in our health service we can’t afford it to be.
“We are in a position in Northern Ireland where we had zero deaths today, with zero people in our intensive care units because of the actions of the people of Northern Ireland.
“So I have a very clear ask — please don’t let this weaken your resolve or your ability to follow the guidance that have gotten us to the position where we are today.”
Mr Swann urged people to continue to comply with the guidance, making clear that “two wrongs don’t make a right”.
Sinn Féin finance minister in the North Conor Murphy, who also attended the funeral, insisted organisers had done their best to ensure guidelines were observed.
He said numbers in the cortege that followed the coffin were limited to 30 and only a small number of people attended the church service. He said Sinn Féin had also live streamed the event in an effort to encourage people to watch it online.
“This clearly is a very, very popular figure within republicanism, it was clearly going to be a very significant funeral and all efforts were made to try to manage that in line with the guidance,” he told UTV. – Additional reporting PA