Belfast Council apologises to families unable to attend cremation of loved ones
Cremations took place same day as service of former IRA member Bobby Storey
A crowd listens to former Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams speak during the funeral of senior Irish Republican and former leading IRA figure Bobby Storey at Milltown Cemetery in west Belfast. Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA Wire
Belfast City Council has apologised to eight families who were not allowed to attend the cremation of their loved ones on the same day 30 people were present at the cremation of the former IRA member Bobby Storey.
The council said it was an “error of judgement” and it was in the process of contacting the families affected. “We are deeply sorry for how this error will have affected them and any hurt and distress caused,” it said in a statement on Monday.
Changes to the coronavirus regulations, which came into effect at 11pm on June 29th, relaxed the restriction on the numbers allowed to gather outdoors from 10 to 30 people.
The City of Belfast Crematorium, which is located in Roselawn Cemetery and is operated by Belfast City Council, had been closed to mourners since the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak. Up to 10 people were allowed to attend burials, but nobody could be present at a service after a cremation.
The change in the regulations meant up to 30 people could be present at an outdoor committal service following the cremation of a loved one.
In its statement, the council said it had been informed about the change in the regulations on the afternoon of Monday, June 29th, enabling it to start communications with funeral directors.
“This is normal practice,” the council said. “This was a rapidly changing environment as has been the case during the response to Covid-19, as rules change frequently.”
The council said an “operational decision was made that for cremations the new procedures would apply from the cremation of Bobby Storey on the afternoon of Tuesday June 30th, onwards.”
This meant that Mr Storey’s was the only one of the nine cremation services which took place at Roselawn on June 30th which had mourners in attendance.
However, of the four burial services which took place in Roselawn on Tuesday, all had up to 30 people present.
The North’s first minister, Arlene Foster, said on Monday that the council had “a lot of questions to answer” and the DUP intended to pursue the matter through its councillors.
Brought before the Assembly on Monday to answer an urgent question from Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) leader Jim Allister, the deputy first minister, Michelle O’Neill, repeated her apology to grieving families who had been hurt by her presence at Mr Storey’s funeral.
“I would never compound any family’s grief, and I’ve said that I’m sorry for that,” she said.
She also said the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) had not spoken directly to her as part of their investigation.
A motion is to come before the North’s Assembly this week calling on Ms O’Neill, and the finance minister, Conor Murphy, to apologise for attending the funeral.
They were among a number of senior Sinn Féin figures, including the party leader, Mary Lou McDonald, who attended the funeral in west Belfast on June 30th.
Ms O’Neill faced calls to resign following the funeral, which appeared to breach both social distancing guidelines and the coronavirus regulations in a number of respects, including the limit on the number of people allowed inside the church for Requiem Mass.
The motion, which could be debated as early as Tuesday, has been signed by the other four parties in the Northern Executive and expresses their disappointment that ministers breached public health guidance.
The first minister, Arlene Foster, told BBC Radio Ulster that “people are understandably very angry, people are frustrated, they’re deeply disappointed by recent events, and it’s important that the Assembly is able to recognise that anger and frustration even if Sinn Féin isn’t prepared to recognise that.
“I think it will send a clear signal that there cannot be a toleration of double standards,” she said.
Last week Ms O’Neill said on Friday that she was sorry for any additional hurt her presence had caused to grieving families, but she was “confident I can stand over the fact that I worked within the guidelines, that I worked within the regulations in terms of attending a Requiem Mass, which was allowed, and also to walk in a funeral cortege of up to 30 people.”
This has been rejected by the other four parties in the Northern Executive – the DUP, SDLP, Ulster Unionists and Alliance – with the first minister, Arlene Foster, saying that the apology “falls short” and the other party leaders were “very clear that the deputy first minister had broken the guidance and the regulations.”
Belfast City Council previously admitted there were no further cremations or burials at Roselawn on June 30th, and said an “operational decision” had been made to “to hold the last three cremation slots of the day.
“This decision was made in order to ensure that there were no other cremations later that day – in order to protect the privacy of other members of the public and their cremation services.
“Belfast City Council did not know whether to anticipate high numbers or otherwise and therefore planned for all instances. This would be normal practice in the event of a high profile cremation.
“There is currently no waiting list at Roselawn Crematorium and no cremations were cancelled.
“Operational decisions like these, made by Belfast City Council are made impartially in what is often a complex and difficult political environment,” the council said.
However in response to claims that a number of council staff were sent home and Sinn Féin marshals were instead on the site, the council said stewards “appointed by the family” were present to ensure only those permitted were present, which it said was “no different to what would normally be the case in a high profile cremation or one that would potentially attract high numbers of people or media.”
The council said 15 members of staff remained present, but some non-cremation staff did go home early to avoid staff being photographed, “as has happened with other high profile funerals or sensitive cremations in the past” and - given that the council did not know how many people might be present – to allow staff who did not need to be present to leave “before potential volumes of traffic and media arrived.”