An independent investigation into the events surrounding the cremation of senior republican Bobby Storey in Belfast in June has found Sinn Féin did not seek preferential treatment or apply pressure to have the rules changed in time for his committal service.
The report by barrister Peter Coll QC also found there was “certainly no evidence of what could come close to being described as a takeover of Roselawn by those acting on behalf of the family”.
Mr Coll said that a consideration of all the available evidence “does not establish that the senior officials involved did, or even felt that they had to, acquiesce or kowtow to Sinn Féin in respect of the cremation arrangements or that there was any organisational requirement to do so or benefit in so doing”.
In addition, the evidence did not establish “that the determining factor for the difference in treatment was Mr Storey’s status as a former senior member of Sinn Féin per se, nor that in some way Sinn Féin had applied pressure to have the change regarding committal services brought about”.
However, Mr Coll found mistakes were made by Belfast City Council, and described the failure to offer the same facilities for earlier cremations that day as "a serious error that should not have occurred".
“The differential in arrangements for cremations that day was avoidable, unnecessary and simply wrong and steps should have been taken to prevent the differential from arising in practice.”
He said “all cremations on that day could and should have been treated in the same fashion” and he acknowledged the “shock, frustration and devastation” of the other eight families who cremated loved ones that day, which he said gave way to “anger and hurt, feeling that their loved ones had been disrespected and treated unfairly and inequitably”.
Belfast City Council on Thursday reiterated its apology to the other families, saying it recognised “that what happened in the differential treatment was unacceptable and we apologise wholeheartedly and unreservedly”.
A joint statement issued by party group leaders on Belfast City Council said they were now considering the report’s findings and were “determined that vital lessons are learned to ensure public confidence in our services”.
The report made a number of recommendations, including a potential restructuring of the relevant council department.
First Minister of Northern Ireland Arlene Foster said she would "read the report and see where it leads" and her thoughts were with the families who had been treated differently, "because of course the rules are there for everyone".
The 116-page report, which was published on Thursday, was commissioned by Belfast City Council to examine the events surrounding the cremation of Mr Storey at the council-owned Roselawn cemetery on June 30th.
Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill and Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald were among a number of senior party figures who attended Mr Storey’s funeral in west Belfast.
Thousands lined the streets for the ceremony, which appeared to breach both social-distancing guidelines and coronavirus regulations in a number of respects, including the limit on the number of people allowed inside the church for Requiem Mass and an oration by former Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams at Milltown Cemetery.
A police investigation into alleged breaches of coronavirus regulations has been completed and a file has been sent for consideration to the North’s Public Prosecution Service.
It subsequently emerged that Mr Storey’s cremation at Roselawn was the only one of nine committal services that took place that day at which family members were allowed to be present.
Mr Coll also examined claims that 30 people had attended the committal service – in breach of the rules in force at the time – and that Belfast City Council had effectively surrendered control of the site and its stewarding to republicans.
Neither of these claims were upheld. According to the report the numbers attending were in the “high 20s” and, while one family-appointed steward was present, council staff were at the gate “at all times”.
Mr Coll said the steward was in his view “not so much a ceding of control, more a sensible and prudent arrangement whereby the representatives of the family and BCC [Belfast City Council] worked together to help prevent persons turning up for the service who were not anticipated by the family, to thus ensure that the numbers were kept under control.
Sinn Féin Cllr Ciarán Beattie said he welcomed the publication of the report, which “made it clear that there was no political interference at Roselawn Crematorium or in the operation of council’s policy at the facility.
“There was a lot of misinformation put into the public domain which only added to the hurt and grief of all the families involved and that has been addressed in this report,” he said.
Social Democratic and Labour Party Cllr Donal Lyons said Belfast City Council must learn lessons from the inquiry.
“There are a number of issues that must be addressed, such as the practice of councillors lobbying senior directors and council officials over operational issues and areas where communication needs to be drastically improved,” he said.