Claim funeral law not broken on day of Bobby Storey’s is nonsense: top undertaker

One of the Province’s leading undertakers has hit back at a fresh claim that it is unclear if the Covid-19 funeral regulations were broken on the day of Bobby Storey’s send-off.

Friday, 21st May 2021, 7:00 am
Updated Friday, 21st May 2021, 10:22 am

Stephen McCosh – who is among a handful of figures representing Northern Ireland on the UK-wide National Association of Funeral Directors – said he had been perfectly clear in his own mind that the law tightly restricted the type of mourners who were allowed to pay their respects.

A key clause in the Covid-19 regulations – which had sat unchanged for over three months by the time of Mr Storey’s funeral on June 30 – said that only close family and members of a deceased’s household could go to their funeral.

If – and only if – none of the above were attending, then friends of the deceased could go (see chapter and verse on the rules, below).

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Aerial footage of mourners in Milltown listening to a Sinn Fein oration

However this week a report by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary stressed that the law had been very difficult to comprehend because bits of it had changed repeatedly since it was first laid down in late March 2020.

Matt Parr, the author of the report, told the Nolan Show on Tuesday it was “far from clear that they [Sinn Fein] broke any of the regulations in force”, adding: “The villain here is a set of regulations which was near impossible to interpret.”

Just after the funeral, Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill (one of dozens of top party members present) said: “I’m confident I can stand over the fact I worked within the guidelines and I worked within the regulations.”

First Minister Arlene Foster disagreed, saying that both “regulations and guidelines were broken, and the Deputy First Minister cannot escape that reality”.

More aerial footage of the event

Stephen McCosh, owner of the eponymous funeral firm with offices in west Belfast and Newtownabbey, told the News Letter when it came to the clause about only allowing close family and householders (or friends): “It was very clear. It was very clear to everyone.

“Every funeral director was telling them [mourners] who could or who couldn’t attend the funeral.

“There were a lot of tough conversations. We were maybe doing 35, 40 funerals a month. So we were breaking that news on a daily basis that people can’t go. It was hard.

“And for the most part, people abided by that – until they saw it on the news.

“Then whenever they saw the Storey funeral on the news, it went the complete opposite direction.”

Regarding Mr Parr’s claim that it was “far from clear” the regulations were breached, he said: “Nonsense. Was it necessary for the Deputy First Minister and the whole of Sinn Fein to be there on top of the enlarged family? No. It wasn’t.

“Not in any way, shape or form.”

The idea that the law had been broken was put to Sinn Fein, but no response was received at time of writing.

WHAT DID THE LAW ACTUALLY SAY?

The HM Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) – like the PPS before it – has said the Covid regulations were so confusing that they were hard to comprehend.

However, one thing that did appear straightforward was the following passage.

It was written into the legally-binding regulations on March 28, and was still unchanged and in force at the time of the Bobby Storey funeral on June 30, just over three months later:

“Restrictions on movement: 5(1) During the emergency period no person may leave the place they are living without reasonable excuse.

“(2) For the purposes of paragraph (1) reasonable excuse includes the need to attend a funeral.

But it then goes on to say only these groups can attend:

>> “(i) A member of the person’s household,

>> “(ii) Close family member

>> “(iii) Or, if no-one within sub-paragraphs (i) or (ii) is attending, a friend.”

HMIC was asked what exactly about the above requirement was “unclear”.

It replied: “The frequently changing regulations meant that people’s understanding of what was allowed and what was prohibited differed.”

It said there was a “tension” between the above section and the fact that – from June 29 – there was no specific restriction on the number of people who could attend a funeral.

Read in conjunction with other changes in the law, HMIC believed someone could successfully argue that section 5(2) above had been left in “by mistake”.

The same point was put to the PPS, which had declined to prosecute anyone on the basis that the law was too confusing.

It replied: “A review of the decision not to prosecute the 24 individuals reported by the PSNI is currently underway.

“All the relevant issues, including those regarding the proper interpretation of the Coronavirus Regulations, were addressed in the extensive public statement we released to the media and published on our website when we announced the original decisions not to prosecute on March 30, 2021.

“As this review is ongoing, it would not be appropriate to comment any further.”

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