Ben Lowry: The IRA funeral scandal was a snapping point in public opinion yet we still lack answers as to why it got special treatment

The report by Peter Coll QC into the use of Roselawn cemetery for the funeral of Bobby Storey is 100+ pages.

By Ben Lowry
Saturday, 20th February 2021, 11:59 am
Updated Saturday, 20th February 2021, 12:32 pm
The Bobby Storey funeral on June 30, which was a massive event after thousands of people had obeyed social distancing and had small gatherings when their loved ones died. Photo by Philip Magowan / Press Eye
The Bobby Storey funeral on June 30, which was a massive event after thousands of people had obeyed social distancing and had small gatherings when their loved ones died. Photo by Philip Magowan / Press Eye

Five of those pages are his conclusions into the saga, at the top of which he cites three themes that emerged in his investigation [see panel below].

These themes are the precursor to his conclusion so I am not suggesting it is the core finding of his report. Even so, I was struck by the mild nature of those themes.

A much bigger fourth theme was on the minds of people across Northern Ireland after the June 30 funeral — the feeling that it was yet another example of special treatment for republicans.

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The report into the handing over of Roselawn, above, to the Bobby Storey funeral emphasises the hurt felt by the families who did not get into the cemetery that day. But that is not what we needed to know

That they used the funeral as a psychological show of strength and that the authorities responded to that display with typical weakness.

I would have expected such concern about republicans to be felt in Belfast yet it is not cited as a theme.

This corrosive sense of unfairness is rooted in bitter experience of the role of republican misdeeds in the Stormont crises since 1998.

Indeed the notion that the UK is determined to keep republicans happy, and in the political system, is not just a perception but a fact.

Wider angle images of the Bobby Storey funeal showed the event’s massive scale such as this clip from a Sinn Fein film showing marshals lined far along the route

It was evident in the dismantling of the RUC, in the Westminster exemption for Sinn Fein on allowances rules (changed so they could boycott Parliament and still get expenses) and in Tony Blair’s secret assurances to IRA On The Runs.

It was evident in the way they were allowed to collapse Stormont in 2017 until they got the long goal of powerful Irish language legislation.

But June 30 was a public snapping point because the event was so massive, as some of the wider angle photographs show, snaking along a long route, and because so many Sinn Fein leaders were there.

That the party had been so sanctimonious about lockdown, despite other republican funeral breaches, made it all the more unpalatable.

Michelle O’Neill, NI’s deputy first minister, has freely impugned UK motives in its handling of Covid, yet she was at the helm of the funeral mass social distancing breach, and has been truculent about it since.

But Sinn Fein’s hypocrisy over the IRA funeral, while flagrant, was not the reason opinion snapped.

It came after sustained lockdown sacrifices by the population, including losing the once-in-a-lifetime chance to give a loved one a proper send off when they die.

Funeral gathering limits had been obeyed thousands of times (more than 20,000 people in NI have died since the first lockdown).

Mr Coll’s report emphasises the hurt felt by the families who did not get into Roselawn that day. But that is not what we needed to know.

We needed to find out exactly how and why this happened.

The terms of reference of Mr Coll’s inquiry did not allow him to compel witnesses. When the RHI scandal emerged, this newspaper called for an inquiry that had such power, because the huge sums of wasted taxpayer funds justified it. Such a probe did happen.

It is not financially feasible to hold such an inquiry into each controversial incident. But Stephen Nolan, who has done fine journalism on the Roselawn scandal, has pointed out how the terms of the probe left matters unresolved.

For example, Nigel Grimshaw, the council director whose department ran Roselawn, had been asked by a colleague in email: “Please don’t tell me we are accommodating [the Storey funeral].”

He had replied: “Hmmmmm”

Mr Grimshaw referred to “delicate negotiations/conversations” over the cemetery arrangements.

Yet asked about these emails by Mr Coll, he said that with hindsight he felt he had used “a poor turn of phrase” in them.

Mr Grimshaw’s emails are a crucial part of the saga as to how an IRA funeral was held in Roselawn, yet his later explanation strikes me as completely inadequate.

Earlier on June 30, the PSNI facilitated the Bobby Storey mass funeral procession in west Belfast.

This month Simon Byrne rushed to apologise for policing of the Ormeau Road massacre memorial.

Such tiptoeing contrasts with other PSNI Covid tactics.

On Wednesday I took a relative who needs care to Crawfordsburn Country Park for exercise. The park was full, due to fine weather in half term, so we drove to Helen’s Bay.

People were behaving responsibly, doing one of the few things that is within guidelines — exercising outside in small groups. They stopped to smile and point at brave swimmers taking to the icy waters, some of them without wetsuits.

And I remembered how weeks ago the police tried to break up swimmers there, threatening them with fines. Such pursuit of easy targets who were not trying to evade rules contrasted with the handling of calculated republican breaches.

Unionists are of course outraged at this discrepancy of treatment.

But we need influential people in Dublin, London and NI’s political centre to show that they share that outrage. By doing so they might help draw some of the de-stabilising poison out of politics here.

• Roselawn Report

Mr Coll cited three key themes that came to the fore in his investigation.

“First, the sense of disappointment, hurt and anger experienced by the families/friends of the eight people cremated [that day] who were not offered the same facility ...”

“Second, the ... disconnect that some of the party groupings in [the council] felt at the manner of decision-making [in the council]...”

“Third, the dedication and commitment on the part of all the council staff I interviewed to serve as best as possible the people of Belfast ... [and the] embarrassment and regret on the part of the senior management personnel involved in the decision-making that events transpired as they did ... ”

Mr Coll’s observation of those themes follows recommendations he makes in light of the Storey funeral episode.

These include improvements to CCTV at Roselawn; training staff in the importance of the ‘challenge function in decision making; consideration of the council’s crisis management of such controversies; establishing the facts of what happened before information is given to the public; a review of how councillors and senior officials communicate.

• Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter deputy editor

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