There is anger in republican circles at a cynical attempt by unionists and others to turn the funeral of IRA veteran Bobby Storey into a stick with which to beat Sinn Féin.
Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald and former president Gerry Adams were among party members at the service for the hugely popular republican strategist in west Belfast.
But the mere presence of the Sinn Féin’s leaders at the high-profile funeral for their departed friend and colleague was used by some unionists to try to undermine the tribute.
The sight of the large crowd which turned out provoked an outpouring of allegations by unionists that social distancing rules had been breached.
In an attempt to concoct an offence, a photograph of Ms O’Neill shaking hands with a person with Down’s Syndrome was manipulated to make it appear to break the guidelines.
Some of the largest media names in both parts of Ireland were quick to row in behind Sinn Féin’ critics, but with guidelines shifting there was no evidence that the Sinn Féin leaders did not abide by the law.
The party’s Finance Minister Conor Murphy, who attended, said organisers had done their best to ensure guidelines were observed. He said numbers in the cortege that followed the coffin were limited to 30 as required, and that only a small number of people attended the church service.
“This clearly is a very, very popular figure within republicanism, it was clearly going to be a very significant funeral and all efforts were made to try to manage that in line with the guidance,” he said.
There were some occasions where Sinn Féin politicians appeared to fall short of the two metre distancing, but with unionists facing a curtailed marching season due to the virus, no statement was too hardline for them.
DUP leader anf First Minister Arlene Foster called on Sinn Féin’s Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill to “step aside” pending an investigation, a clear attempt to turn the tables after the RHI corruption scandal of 2017.
DUP Assembly members at Stormont claimed five Sinn Féin Ministers had broken the Assembly’s code of conduct, while the UUP Health Minster Robin Swann hinted that he could impose a ‘local lockdown’ in Belfast as a result of the funeral.
Britain’s Direct Ruler, Brandon Lewis, declared of Ms O’Neill’s attendance, “it’s not something I would have done” -- despite the continued flouting of Covid-19 regulations by senior Tories in England.
The grief of families who were required to limit the size of their funeral cortege to ten mourners under previous government guidance was used as a weapon by DUP MP Gregory Campbell. He claimed the new limit of 30 had come as “a kick in the teeth” to the families and demanded “police action” against Ms O’Neill.
With all the big parties north and south on the bandwagon, only People before Profit warned of a “hypocritical chorus of condemnation” and of parties “picking and choosing” which events to focus on.
“People should be able to say their farewells without being pontificated at by the likes of Arlene Foster, who should have resigned long, long ago,” said Gerry Carroll.
“The only people who have been aggressively pursued by the PSNI with fines and threats of prosecutions for breaching the regulations during this crisis are Black Lives Matter protestors who were taking part in safe, socially distant protests.”
High-profile funerals across Ireland and Britain have seen crowds throughout the lockdown, including in Belfast, where large numbers turned out for the funeral on Wednesday of 14-year-old Noah Donohoe. At the recent state funeral in County Mayo of policeman Colm Horkan, little was made of the fact that social distancing was not strictly observed.
But the greatest hypocrisy came from the lips of Tánaiste (formerly Taoiseach) Leo Varadkar. Despite being condemned for sharing drinks with friends in Dublin’s Phoenix Park at the height of the lockdown, he said: “I think it is important that politicians try to lead by example – there are rules and regulations that we make and we expect others to stick to them.”
Speaking to RTÉ, Sinn Féin’s Pearse Doherty, who also attended the funeral, accused rival politicians of “trying to politicise the death of somebody who was a close friend to people and whose family is grieving”.
He said there had been engagement with the PSNI and the church to comply with social-distancing guidelines, with numbers restricted inside the church as well as in the funeral cortege.
“I believe the family and the local organisers did everything in their power to abide by the restrictions in place,” he said.
In a statement released on Friday afternoon, Michelle O’Neill reiterated that she stuck to the Covid-19 lockdown guidelines and said she had no regrets about attending the funeral of her friend, Bobby Storey.
But she said she had “listened carefully” and was sorry that grieving families were experiencing further hurt because of the controversy.
“No family’s grief is more important than another’s,” she said. “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.
“Bobby’s family also must have space to grieve. If the regulations had prevented me from attending his funeral I would have obeyed those regulations. At the funeral and mass I kept to the regulations as I have advised others to do.”
She also said it was “unfortunate” that the matter had divided the Stormont Executive: “We have important work to do and I firmly believe that all the parties of the Executive are committed to this and to powersharing.”
But her statement “fell short”, according to Arlene Foster, who continued to call for Ms O’Neill to step aside.
“The investigations will look at all of that, but I think it is my clear view that she has broken the regulations,” she said, without providing details.