Martin McElkerney: priest and commentator at odds over INLA leader’s funeral homily

Funeral of republican Martin McIlkearney'McElkerney. Pacemaker Belfast
Funeral of republican Martin McIlkearney'McElkerney. Pacemaker Belfast

A priest’s decision not to mention those killed by Martin McElkerney during a funeral service for the INLA leader on Thursday has been branded “atrocious” by Ruth Dudley Edwards.

The newspaper columnist and commentator said the homily by Fr Gary Donegan “ignored the victims” and said: “You can still say there were good things about the fellow, but it’s too awful not to mention [the murder of three people]. It is terrible for the victims’ relatives.”

Fr Gary Donegan. Picture: Press Eye Belfast

Fr Gary Donegan. Picture: Press Eye Belfast

She added: “At [former IRA leader] Sean O’Callaghan’s memorial service the vicar actually prayed for him and his two victims by name.”

Ms Dudley Edwards also hit out at those behind the paramilitary displays ahead of the McElkerney funeral at St Peter’s in west Belfast.

“We are talking about grooming of young people. That’s what they do, they groom. And the IRA groomed young people for their whole existence – all of the IRAs do the same – and you actually condone the grooming if you give these kids something to aspire to, and something to honour, and that’s what they’re doing.”

Her comments angered Fr Donegan, who responded by questioning whether his critics had a track record of directly challenging, face to face, the actions of illegal organisations.

The commentator Ruth Dudley Edwards before the memorial service to the former IRA terrorist Sean O'Callaghan in London. Pic by Ben Lowry

The commentator Ruth Dudley Edwards before the memorial service to the former IRA terrorist Sean O'Callaghan in London. Pic by Ben Lowry

Speaking to the News Letter on Friday, Fr Donegan also stressed that his first responsibility was to a grieving family.

“My ministry with the McElkerney family was that of a Christian minister, not that of a politician; social worker or media commentator. My commitment was to bring the comfort of the Gospel message to a family whose lives had been shattered by the pain of a loved one’s death,” he said.

“I carefully chose the words for my homily at the funeral mass of Martin McElkerney, as I knew that not only would whatever words I used be inadequate to comfort the heart broken members of his family, but would also be latched on to by others to score cheap political points.”

The former Holy Cross priest went on to say: “Comments by people who have not walked the ground in communities scarred by conflict, or listened to the pain of families whose lives have been shattered by the tragedy of death and suicide, display an appalling lack of awareness of the often complex issues behind the headlines, or a compassion for those who have been left behind.”

In his homily on Thursday, Fr Donegan said: “Following his release from prison, Martin became aware that the choices he made in life had significant and lasting consequences for others, including his family.”

Commenting on the presence of masked paramilitaries at the funeral, Superintendent Lorraine Dobson said: “Police had a proportionate operation in place on Thursday, which included the use of evidence gathering equipment.

“All evidence will now be reviewed by specialist officers and any offences detected will be investigated.”

• Martin McElkerney, 57, was sentenced to life imprisonment for the 1982 murders of two children and a soldier in west Belfast.

Kevin Valliday, 11, and 14-year-old Stephen Bennett were killed along with soldier Kevin Waller, aged 20, when a bomb exploded in the area of Divis Flats.

McElkerney was released from prison in 1999 under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement.

The INLA was responsible for up to 120 murders during the Troubles, including the car bomb that killed Tory MP Airey Neave at the House Of Commons in 1979.

There was a large presence of men in paramilitary-style uniform at McElkerney’s funeral in west Belfast on Thursday and his coffin was draped in the tricolour and the starry plough flags.

In his funeral homily at St Peter’s, Fr Gary Donegan said McElkerney had joined the INLA following the death of his friends during the Troubles in what had been “sad and difficult times”.