A range of politicians and mainstream media have jumped on a loyalist bandwagon to stigmatise mourners at the funeral of legendary figure Bobby Storey, and mount a political attack on Sinn Fein.
The funerals of republicans have long been the subject of deadly violence and vitriol by loyalists and Crown Force police dating back over a century. Crown Forces still routinely descend on republican funerals, arresting members of colour parties and guards of honour.
A bizarre new chapter in this history saw unionists last week denounce a crowd of over a thousand who turned out for Mr Storey’s final journey for breaking Covid-19 restrictions. Unionists demanded that all those Sinn Fein politicians who had attended should step aside and that Sinn Fein’s Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill should resign. A failure to do so, they warned, could see the collapse peace process itself.
The campaign was pushed so relentlessly, mainly by Ben Lowry (right) of the loyalist Newsletter and BBC radio host Stephen Nolan (left), that it found willing participants beyond their usual unionist support. The SDLP and the left wing People before Profit happily joined in a slanging match against Sinn Fein at the Stormont Assembly, backing a motion of condemnation against Ms O’Neill.
This week there were claims by loyalists that the Provisional movement had ‘taken control’ of Roselawn Crematorium in Belfast on the day of the funeral, while Mr Storey’s remains were cremated, in order to hold some kind of military-style salute.
However, a report by Belfast city council has now admitted the occasion was nothing more than a ‘low-key dignified send off’ with just 28 mourners present, and that contrary to reports, no other cremations were cancelled.
Nevertheless, such was the intensity of the furore generated by the loyalist media that one Belfast City Council official received death threats over his involvement in arrangements.
And while police forces across Ireland and Britain have openly made exceptions to the coronavirus restrictions for high-profile funerals, the PSNI, under unionist pressure, has announced it has requested the appointment of an ‘external’ police force to oversee an investigation.
Sinn Fein has said little, mindful not to add to the distress of families who endured difficult funeral arrangements as a result of the restrictions. However, a Facebook page operated in the name of the West Belfast community said it “stands fully” behind the Storey family.
“These attacks amount to nothing more than petty political point scoring,” it read.
“It is deeply regrettable that an elected representative for our own community has now joined in with this circus, just days after promising not to get involved in the ‘hypocritical attacks’ on those that attended.
“Let’s be absolutely clear about this. West Belfast is proud of Bobby Storey.
“And West Belfast will stand fully behind the Storey family at this time of great difficulty.
“The Storey family, like all other families that have lost loved ones, deserve space to grieve the loss of a husband, father, grandfather and brother.
“The Storey family do not deserve to berated by politicians in the Assembly and by the media.
“Those involved in these despicable attacks share common interests. To discredit Bobby Storey, demonise West Belfast and damage republicanism. They will NOT succeed.”