Arlene Foster criticises police and Sinn Fein over republican funeral scenes

David Young, PA
·4-min read

Police and Sinn Fein both have questions to answer over the crowds that attended the funeral of a veteran republican in Londonderry, the First Minister has said.

Arlene Foster said it was “very clear” that Covid-19 restrictions were broken during the funeral procession for Eamonn “Peggy” McCourt in Derry on Monday.

The 62-year-old former IRA member from Creggan in the city died in hospital at the weekend having reportedly contracted Covid-19.

Images that emerged online following his funeral on Monday showed a large crowd behind a hearse, which was flanked by two lines of mourners in white shirts and black ties.

Police have launched an investigation into alleged breaches of Covid-19 regulations limiting the size of funerals and gatherings before and afterwards

A political crisis erupted in Northern Ireland last June after senior Sinn Fein members attended the funeral of IRA veteran Bobby Storey, an event that saw hundreds take to the streets at a time when strict limits on numbers also applied.

Mrs Foster told the PA news agency that the latest alleged breaches related to a republican funeral raised serious issues for her partners in government and the Police Service of Northern Ireland.

“I think clearly there are questions for both,” she said.

“We need to hear from Sinn Fein – who was at the funeral?

“We’ve seen all of the footage and it very clearly shows that there were a huge number of people walking in very close contact to the funeral.

“I understand that there were only a limited number inside the chapel but in terms of walking in close proximity behind the funeral cortege, I think it’s very clear that restrictions were broken and that indeed raises questions for the police.

“This is not the first of these republican funerals to have broken restrictions and really the police have to answer questions otherwise it goes to the very heart of credibility in dealing with these issues and therefore my Policing Board members will very much be raising these issues with the Chief Constable (Simon Byrne).”

Mother and baby homes report
Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill declined to comment on the scenes at the funeral, insisting her focus was on a report on mother and baby homes (Liam McBurney/PA)

DUP members of the NI Policing Board, the PSNI’s oversight body, wrote to Mr Byrne on Tuesday demanding that he address “perceptions of two-tier policing during the pandemic”.

Mrs Foster said the issue had not been discussed at Tuesday’s meeting of the Stormont executive.

She added: “The way in which some Sinn Fein members have behaved has an impact on messaging and around keeping to the restrictions but people should not set their standards by those who seek to break the law.”

Sinn Fein deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill declined to comment on the funeral when asked by PA on Tuesday, insisting her focus was on the publication of a report about mother and baby homes in Northern Ireland.

Her party colleague Gerry Kelly earlier made clear that Sinn Fein did not have a role in organising the event.

“Let me make it very clear that Sinn Fein was not involved in organising this funeral,” he told BBC Radio Ulster.

“It was arranged by the family.”

Mr Kelly said “two or three” Sinn Fein councillors attended in a personal capacity but stood on the roadside and, to his knowledge, were not part of the cortege.

Bobby Storey funeral
The funeral procession of IRA veteran Bobby Storey in west Belfast in June (Liam McBurney/PA)

Mr Kelly said he was “fairly certain” no Sinn Fein assembly members were present.

“They are very difficult times, but any breaches of the public health regulations will and should be fully investigated,” he added.

Announcing the police investigation on Monday evening, PSNI chief superintendent Darrin Jones said prior to the funeral police had engaged with representatives of Mr McCourt’s family, the local church and local political representatives and received “assurances as to the conduct of the funeral”.

He added: “Regrettably at the funeral on Monday morning, a significant number of people gathered as part of the cortege, in a manner likely to be in breach of the health protection regulations.

“As a result, police have commenced an investigation into the matter, and where individuals are identified as potentially being in breach of the regulations, they will be reported to the Public Prosecution Service with a view to prosecution.”

Mr McCourt was a Sinn Fein activist and former IRA man who was badly injured when the SAS opened fire on a car in Derry in 1981.

Two other IRA men were killed in the shooting.