Declassified files: McGuinness threatened to hold dead body until bishop spoke

Martin McGuinness. Photo credit: Paul Faith/PA Wire
Martin McGuinness. Photo credit: Paul Faith/PA Wire

Martin McGuinness threatened to hold a dead IRA man’s body for a week amid tensions over paramilitary shows of strength at funerals, state papers have revealed.

He personally delivered the chilling message to Bishop Cahal Daly’s secretary as a stand-off ensued over the burial of Larry Marley in Belfast in April 1987.

Marley, the mastermind of the 1983 Maze escape, was shot dead by the UVF in front of his wife and newborn son at their home in Ardoyne.

Amid a huge security operation, his funeral was delayed for three days and there were two failed attempts to bury him as a heavily armed police cordon stepped in each time to stop shots being fired.

At one point during the stand-off Marley’s body had to be embalmed for second time while in the family home and the RUC threatened to seize the remains under public health laws.

Documents released from the Department of Foreign Affairs reveal Mr McGuinness issued the warning to the bishop’s emissary Father Hugh Starkey as he mediated between the Marley family and the RUC.

He said the Sinn Fein chief told the secretary for Cahal Daly (then the Bishop of Down and Connor, and later the head of the whole Catholic Church in Ireland): “We have the body and will keep it for a week, if necessary, until the bishop speaks.”

The papers claimed Mr McGuinness was smarting over comments made by Edward Daly, the Bishop of Derry, about restricting IRA funerals amid paramilitary shows of strength.

Bishop Edward Daly had raised concerns that if he did not take “strong and dramatic” action, some Provos might be emboldened enough to fire shots inside a church rather than outside.

A Foreign Affairs official said Mr McGuinness wanted to force Bishop Cahal Daly to make a public statement, “preferably a rebuke to the police and sympathy with the predicament of the family”.

He noted that the bishop “wisely refused to be drawn into this trap”.

“Bishop Daly’s refusal to act according to Sinn Fein’s bidding has created a resentment towards the church in that section of the nationalist community which Father Starkey hopes will only be temporary,” the file said.

Marley’s funeral and burial lasted seven hours. A Foreign Affairs official watching the events said it was the “biggest propaganda coup since the 1981 hunger strike”.

In the days after the funeral Cahal Daly called on the RUC to rethink its approach to dealing with paramilitary funerals.

The documents also state that Father Starkey reported suspicions that Marley had been “set up by his own people” as part of an IRA feud.

The priest recalled one visit to the Marley home during the stand-off as “unsettling and macabre”.

With the coffin in the house, Father Starkey said prayers while an IRA guard of honour stood by.

Just before the coffin was taken from the house he told everyone in the house to get on their knees and recite the rosary.

He said it reminded them it was a religious ceremony not a political event.