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Bobby Storey funeral: O'Neill 'sorry' for grieving families' hurt

Bobby Storey funeral: O'Neill 'sorry' for grieving families' hurt

Sinn Fein's leader and deputy leader attended, along with former leader Gerry Adams (centre)
Michelle O'Neill has said she is "sorry for grieving families experiencing more hurt" after complaints about her attending an ex-IRA leader's funeral.The deputy first minister was accused of breaching social distancing regulations at the funeral of Bobby Storey on Tuesday.Four executive parties, including the DUP, had called for her to step aside.Ms O'Neill has reiterated that she believes she stuck to the coronavirus lockdown guidelines.There have also been calls for an independent investigation into Mr Storey's cremation at Roselawn Crematorium.
Mr Storey's body was brought to the facility after initially being taken to Milltown Cemetery.Belfast City Council has said executive guidance was followed at the crematorium. It is Stormont's biggest political crisis since devolution was restored in January after a three-year hiatus.
A large number of mourners turned out for the funeral on Tuesday
In an appearance at an assembly committee on Wednesday, Ms O'Neill did not apologise despite a call from First Minister Arlene Foster for her to do so.
'I have listened carefully'
On Friday, she issued a public statement ahead of a meeting of the executive party leaders.She said: "I have listened carefully to the voices of those who have lost loved ones."No family's grief is more important than another's."I am particularly concerned that grieving families, who have lost a loved one during the pandemic had their heartache compounded by the necessary restrictions which were in place at that time. "Not being able to have their family and friends' support to help them through was hugely difficult."I am also concerned that those grieving families are experiencing more hurt over recent days. "I am sorry for that."She added that if the regulations had prevented her from attending the funeral she would not have gone, and said she kept to the regulations at both the funeral and Requiem Mass.Earlier on Friday, Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald told RTE: "I do understand that looking at the images of very busy pathways in west Belfast and taking all of that in obviously has jolted and has caused some hurt among some of those families, and for that I am very sorry."That certainly would never have been my intention or Michelle's intention or the intention of the Storey family as they laid Bobby to rest."
Crisis talks
On Thursday, Mrs Foster said she could not currently "stand beside" Ms O'Neill - who is Sinn Fein's deputy leader - and "give out public health advice" after her attendance at the funeral.Bobby Storey was a former prisoner and close friend to leading Sinn Fein figures and was considered the head of intelligence of the IRA for a period from the mid-1990s.Tuesday's funeral was the latest in a number of events that have been criticised for attracting crowds during the Covid-19 pandemic.The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), Alliance Party and SDLP have called for an investigation into Ms O'Neill's behaviour and believe the executive's health message aimed at containing Covid-19 has been undermined.It is understood Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis and Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney spoke with the party leaders on Thursday evening.A meeting was held at Stormont involving Ms O'Neill, the DUP leader Mrs Foster, Colum Eastwood of the SDLP, the Alliance Party's Naomi Long and Steve Aiken of the UUP but it is not clear what was discussed. The party leaders' forum was established as part of the New Decade, New Approach deal which re-established the power-sharing executive in January.
Roselawn allegations
The UUP has called for an independent investigation into Mr Storey's cremation at Roselawn Cemetery, which is run by Belfast City Council.There have been claims that a number of council staff were sent home from the cemetery during the funeral and that Sinn Fein marshals were on the premises.It has also been claimed that no burials were permitted after 14:00 BST and no cremations after 15:00 to accommodate Mr Storey's cremation.Speaking to BBC Radio Ulster's Nolan Show, Ulster Unionist MLA Doug Beattie said Sinn Fein had turned the situation "into a circus". Mr Beattie said his party's councillor Sonia Copeland would be asking the chief executive of Belfast City Council what had happened, and his party would put the response into the public domain.
'Operational decision'
In a statement, the council said it had followed Northern Ireland Executive guidance "to permit 30 people to gather outside", and that all cremations held on Tuesday complied with the guidance. The council said it had been in contact with an unnamed local elected representative, and plans had been put in place for people appointed by the family to work with Belfast City Council in stewarding the event. It said these people were in place "to ensure that those allowed on the site were only those permitted by the family". The council said some staff who were due to go home at 16:00 BST had been allowed to leave at 14:00. It said this was "to avoid a situation where staff would be photographed, as has happened with other high profile funerals or sensitive cremations in the past". It said an "operational decision" had been taken not to hold any more cremations that day, "in order to protect the privacy of other members of the public and their cremation services". The council added it had made the decision "impartially in what is often a complex and difficult political environment".
Public mood
DUP MP Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said there needed to be an investigation into whether the regulations had been breached.He said: "We will also be asking the PSNI to specifically investigate any potential regulatory breaches by executive ministers, including the deputy first minister."Mr Donaldson said Ms O'Neill "failed to realise the public mood on this and the deep concern that people are taking this personally".
Bobby Storey funeral: O'Neill 'sorry' for grieving families' hurt

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Arlene Foster called for Michelle O'Neill to apologise
Guidelines
Current coronavirus regulations state a maximum of 30 people are allowed to gather together outdoors.About 120 mourners were inside St Agnes's Church in Belfast for Mr Storey's funeral, BBC News NI understands.The deputy first minister told a Stormont committee on Wednesday that Requiem Masses were now possible due to this week's reopening of places of worship.However, guidance on religious services issued to faith leaders last week stipulated that it did not apply to weddings, baptisms or funerals.Updated guidance, seen by BBC News NI on Wednesday and published on the Department of Health website on Thursday, said funeral services could now be conducted in a place of worship."The size and circumstances of the venue will determine the maximum number that can attend the service safely whilst observing social distancing of at least 2 metres, wherever possible," it continued."It is recommended that face coverings are used for indoor services."The guidance for those gathering outdoors remains the same with the guidance, issued for funeral directors, stating "a maximum of only 30 are permitted to gather for the committal at the graveside or at the front of the City of Belfast Crematorium".
Michelle O'Neill
Coronavirus lockdown measures
Sinn Fein
Coronavirus pandemic
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