Ben Lowry: Instead of ‘moving on’ from the IRA funeral, we still need proper answers into the scandal

Remember from childhood those drawings of impossible triangles or impossible staircases?

Saturday, 22nd May 2021, 12:52 pm
Updated Saturday, 22nd May 2021, 3:50 pm
The Bobby Storey funeral saga, and the various investigations that seem to take us nowhere, feels like wandering up an impossible staircase that somehow always brings us back to the same place

There is an example above, a ‘Penrose steps’, named after a psychiatrist and mathematician.

I presume that such images become of interest to older children when they reach a stage where they move beyond an instinctive grasp of space to a more critical one.

Such drawings are intriguing and also, in their physical impossibility, unsettling.

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Sinn Fein’s president, Mary Lou McDonald, left, and Stormont leader, Michelle O’Neill, right, were at the helm of the funeral of an IRA godfather. An intelligent child would have grasped it all: a flagrant breach of the limit of 30 mourners, and an aggressive breach of the spirit of social distancing, yet various probes into it were unable to adjudicate as wrong that which a child could see was obviously wrong. Photo Pacemaker Press

What has happened with the Bobby Storey funeral is similar.

With the publication of last week’s Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) report, it is as if we have wandered up an impossible staircase that somehow brings us back to where we began.

The funeral itself was easy to understand. As I keep writing and saying in broadcasts, an intelligent child would have grasped it all.

Sinn Fein were at the helm of a huge funeral for an IRA godfather in west Belfast. It was a flagrant breach of the limit of 30 mourners at a funeral, a limit that had been lower earlier in lockdown.

Aside from the law, the gathering was a massive, aggressive breach of the spirit of social distancing.

While the UK and Ireland were both then emerging from lockdown it was probably the biggest gathering of people in the British Isles, of 70 million people, since sport festivals such as Cheltenham in March.

Aerial photographs of the IRA funeral snaking through west Belfast show it was at least as large as Black Lives Matter rallies in London or the crowds on beaches in southern England when weather got hot.

And there at the helm of it was Sinn Fein’s president, Mary Lou McDonald, who hopes to be Taoiseach, and Stormont leader, Michelle O’Neill, the deputy first minister.

SF has been sanctimonious about lockdown throughout, and tried to force closure of NI schools in mid March 2020, in line with the Republic. The party was scathing about Tory handling of Covid, and has ever since wanted a slow lockdown exit (unless southern rules ease, in which case it wants NI to match that).

Yet few people were surprised that police facilitated their funeral. It seemed clear from TV on the day.

It was, all in all, a breathtaking display of arrogance, entitlement and republican exceptionalism. It also showed confidence that this defiance of both the spirit and letter of the rules around mass gatherings and funerals would be met with no sanction. As, indeed, it ultimately met with no sanction.

So go back for a moment and think about the smart primary school child, of an age that is able to ponder impossible shapes.

Children of that age will remember this last year for the rest of their lives. They have lived through a lockdown that even adults currently in their 90s had not before seen.

They have learned about behaving in ways that minimise risk and show consideration for others.

Such a child will have seen the stark wrongness of what happened on June 30. Plenty of such children will have lost grandparents during lockdown, so they will have understood what an insult the Storey funeral was to the 25,000+ people who have died in NI since March last year (mostly not of Covid), almost all of whose relatives obediently followed funeral guidance.

A child of that age will have understood how remarkable it is that a deputy first minister, who to this day tells us all what we can and cannot do — a decision making power that can ruin law abiding businesses – remains defiant about her role.

Yet probes into this affair have been like impossible steps.

For all the legalese, sub-clauses, grave language, hand wringing and stamp of officialdom, the reports in totality have failed to adjudicate as wrong that which children could see as wrong.

Prosecutors say the law was all too complicated, even for those SF politicians who helped make it. HMIC agrees with that.

Prosecutors also say that the PSNI facilitation of the funeral helped make prosecutions impossible. Police say that they had to engage with organisers, for reasons such as safety. HMIC agree with that too.

Belfast City Council’s report says republicans did not put pressure on the council to close Roselawn for the IRA funeral. Perhaps we should assume it just happened.

HMIC say there was no pro republican bias because a loyalist funeral would have been treated the same.

Thus the rest of us are left to conclude that it is a coincidence that the republican movement, which has been so inclined to flex its muscles over the decades, got away with such a flagrant breach.

And to conclude that the question of 1,000 uniformed stewards on that day is a matter not worthy of investigation or explanation.

And to overlook the fact that Stormont rules mysteriously changed hours before the funeral.

Thank goodness Stephen Nolan has taken on a role that investigative wings of the BBC should have done, and ignored cries to “move on” over this saga, and its shocking implications for the rule of law at a time of great community tension.

Thank goodness the Ulster Unionist Party, which has stood out against the pro terrorist direction of legacy and against the blackmail of keeping down of Stormont until there is an Irish language act, is now saying that this saga needs a judge-led inquiry.

Let us hope that any such probe does not just add a further impossible level to the staircase.

Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter deputy editor

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