Michelle O’Neill’s repeated insistence that the funeral did not in fact break any of the rules or guidance which she has issued to the public is so breathtakingly audacious that it suggests Sinn Féin, like Donald Trump, now believes it can get away with saying that black is white – even when there is a mass of incontrovertible evidence to the contrary.
Such Trumpian levels of disinformation mean that it is necessary to deconstruct exactly what happened on Tuesday and where it breached what Stormont is telling other members of the public to do.
It is necessary to do so not only because the truth matters in public life, but because we are still being told by the executive that these draconian restrictions are necessary to save lives.
Undertakers and churches have reported genuine confusion, as well as anger, from grieving families this week who watched thousands of people attending Bobby Storey’s funeral, and have then listened to Ms O’Neill say that was entirely in keeping with the public health advice.
Unsurprisingly, some of them are fighting back against attempts to limit attendance at their loved one’s funeral to just 30.
Yesterday Ms O’Neill faced selected media (the News Letter was not invited) to read a statement and briefly answer some questions.
The statement was framed as her moment of contrition and for the first time, she used the word “sorry”. But that word was carefully placed in a sentence which set out her regret that there had been hurt caused to other families – something clear as people wept this week in telling of how they stayed away from relatives’ funerals in an attempt to save lives.
However, Ms O’Neill did not accept that she or her party had been responsible for that hurt by disregarding her own message. It was reminiscent of Arlene Foster’s tone deaf half-apology for RHI in December 2016 which by then was too little, too late to save her position.
There are two areas to examine in deciding whether the funeral broke what Stormont has told the public to do.
The first is the legal question of whether the funeral broke the law.
The Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2020 put in place by Stormont restrict the population’s movement.
That law essentially reverses the historic freedom under British law for citizens to do anything unless it is expressly forbidden by law and replaces it with a general prohibition on all movement outside one’s home unless it is permitted by law.
The regulations set out several exemptions and the relevant one here is regulation 5 (g), which permits travel for funerals. However, that regulation is tightly drawn, only permitting attendance at a funeral of a member of one’s household, a close family member, or – if neither a member of the person’s household or close family members are attending, then attendance at a friend’s funeral is permitted.
Mr Storey’s family was present at the funeral and so the law appears to have prohibited others such as Ms O’Neill from attending. Some lawyers suggest the law is poorly drafted and perhaps unenforceable, but even if that is the case there has been a breach of the spirit of that law.
There is precedent here because it was on those grounds that Black Lives Matters protesters were given fines by police – and a month ago today Ms O’Neill admonished them that they were “spreading the virus and actually that’s killing people”.
Alarmingly the deputy first minister appeared yesterday to misunderstand her own law, telling the public: “I will never apologise for attending the funeral of my friend” – even though the legislation she voted for told the public they were prohibited, on pain of a large fine, from attending a friend’s funeral other than in unusual and specified circumstances.
But the second relevant area is in relation to Stormont’s official public health advice.
Much of what ministers have told the public to do – including the central element of social distancing – is not in law, but is in public health guidance.
In this area, the evidence is overwhelming and there were at least nine breaches of what Ms O’Neill has told the public to do.
1. Even before the funeral, there had been a significant breach of the guidelines which state that “wakes should not be held”, with a major wake for Mr Storey.
2. The guidelines state that “there should be no remains taken home to rest”. However, Sinn Fein MLAs Martina Anderson and Gerry Kelly were involved in a large-scale gathering four days before his funeral where Mr Storey’s coffin was brought to his family.
3. Also before the funeral, there was a breach of the advice that “funeral arrangements should not be advertised” in order to curtail numbers. Sinn Féin’s official Belfast Facebook page, MP Paul Maskey, Assembly Speaker Alex Maskey and multiple other party figures were among those openly disseminating the funeral timings and route.
4. Video footage and photographic evidence shows mass breaches of social distancing among crowds where it was just impossible to stay 2 metres apart, given the thousands on the streets.
5. At the time, the executive was telling the public that only 10 people could attend a funeral, and the Catholic Church has confirmed that it was the latest Stormont guidance given to it at the time. That night, the advice on the executive website upped that number to 30 – but that was after the funeral.
6. Although Sinn Fein streamed the funeral online, far from asking the public not to attend, the party brought many hundreds (The Irish Times said 1,800) uniformed republicans to stand along the roadside in expectation of a crowd, and set up a public address system in the cemetery – something demonstrably unnecessary for 30 people.
7. Ms O’Neill specifically breached social distancing by standing to get a ‘selfie’ taken with two men, one of whom had his arm draped round her. This is the only area which she eventually came to accept was “wrong” – but even then she appeared to blame the men, saying it had happened when they approached in “the blink of an eye”.
8. The guidance says that there should be no gatherings after the funeral, yet there are images of several such gatherings, some of them involving prominent Sinn Féin politicians.
9. The guidance states that “it is recommended that coffin ‘lifts’ should not take place unless pallbearers all reside in the same house” yet Mr Storey’s coffin was carried by several individuals, including Gerry Adams.
Ms O’Neill said that the funeral “was all done in accordance with the guidelines”.
If she genuinely believes that, it means that the deputy first minister has less understanding of the guidelines than my three-year-old son.
In April, Ms O’Neill said “no one is exempt” from the funeral guidance she had issued. She said: “The rules are there for a reason. Everyone needs to follow the rules. We are all being asked to do difficult things right now; we are being asked to do them to save lives.”
This week has shown that ordinary members of the public have been treated to a different standard than Sinn Féin and the anger at that stretches far beyond those who disagree with Sinn Féin’s politics.
But in political terms, there is here a conundrum. Why would a party which has spent months fashioning for itself a niche of being the party of the toughest lockdown to save lives knowingly cast that aside by actions which were in full view of multiple cameras?
Funerals are of particular symbolic importance in republicanism, but is that symbolism more important than present political gain – especially in the Republic?
Even in death, Mr Storey’s funeral points to the remarkable hold which old IRA veterans have on Sinn Féin, even forcing its current leadership who have no IRA background into actions which they must have known would not only be politically indefensible but a danger to public health.
A message from the Editor:
Thank you for reading this story on our website. While I have your attention, I also have an important request to make of you.
With the coronavirus lockdown having a major impact on many of our advertisers - and consequently the revenue we receive - we are more reliant than ever on you taking out a digital subscription.
Subscribe to newsletter.co.uk and enjoy unlimited access to the best Northern Ireland and UK news and information online and on our app. With a digital subscription, you can read more than 5 articles, see fewer ads, enjoy faster load times, and get access to exclusive newsletters and content. Visit https://www.newsletter.co.uk/subscriptions now to sign up.
Our journalism costs money and we rely on advertising, print and digital revenues to help to support them. By supporting us, we are able to support you in providing trusted, fact-checked content for this website.