The Catholic church has backed calls for the PSNI to stop policing funerals after a colour party at a republican funeral was targeted for the novel crime of marching too close together.
Republicans marched alongside a horse and carriage carrying former councillor Francie McNally’s coffin to the graveyard in Coagh, County Tyrone.
The respected former Sinn Fein councillor died peacefully in hospital on Monday. Due to concerns over Covid-19, only ten family members were present at the cemetery, and no church service took place. A colour party joined the funeral cortege outside.
However, in photos which appeared in the media, the distance between the marchers appeared to be short of the currently required ‘social distance’ of two metres, prompting indignation from unionists and others.
The PSNI said “an investigation is underway, evidence is being gathered and a file is being prepared for submission to the Public Prosecution Service”.
But Archbishop Eamon Martin said it was for the community, first of all, to police such gatherings.
“If you’re going to start sending for police and everything like that (at) a very, very emotive moment like a funeral? I really think that responsibility rests with all of us,” he said.
“All we can do is appeal to everyone to please respect the messages that are going out from their health authorities and our leaders in government.”
Mr McNally was a Sinn Féin councillor in the 1980s before running McNally’s Inn, near Toomebridge. He was a target of loyalist attacks, and two of his brothers were killed during the conflict.
Mr McNally’s brother Phelim was killed in a gun attack by loyalists on the councillor’s home in 1988. In 1991 another of his brothers, Lawrence McNally was shot dead in an infamous SAS ambush in Coagh.
Sinn Féin vice-president Michelle O’Neill said Mr McNally had “served the people during very difficult and challenging times”.
Relatives For Justice chief Mark Thompson described Ms McNally as a valued member of the victims group. “He was a decent man. He was considerate and very thoughtful, and always gave a great contribution when dealing with legacy,” he said.
TOUCHING SENDOFF FOR JT THOMAS
Meanwhile, tributes have also been paid to a former blanket man, John ‘JT’ Thomas, who passed away on Tuesday.
Mr Thomas spent a total of 16 years in prison as a political prisoner. During that time, he spent five years ‘on the blanket’ in Long Kesh, wearing only a blanket in protest at criminalisation and the imposition of prisoner uniforms.
His (reduced) funeral took place today [Friday], and residents of his native New Lodge took to the street to pay their respects as fully as possible with a round of applause as the cortege passed. His nephew, also called John and also known as JT, thanked those who had paid tribute.
“He loved the people of the New Lodge and they quite clearly held him in very high esteem,” he said. “A difficult day for his family and friends, when this is all over we will celebrate his life.”