As concern grows over a dangerous new English strain of the coronavirus, the determination of unionists to fit the deepening Covid-19 crisis into a sectarian agenda has reached a new low point.
Senior DUP figure Christopher Stalford lashed out on Friday at what he claimed was a lack of social distancing at a “large republican funeral” in County Derry.
However, the funeral he referred to was not of a former IRA Volunteer, but of former 26 County soldier Anto Duffy. He was buried in the village of Beragh last weekend with his coffin draped with the Irish flag and a Dublin Gaelic sports flag.
The DUP has continued to abuse the memory of the late IRA leader Bobby Storey, whose funeral in June of last year led to months of similar allegations against Sinn Féin. The party’s Deputy Speaker at Stormont believed he saw a chance to again link republicans to imagined Covid rule breaches.
He questioned Sinn Féin Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill closely about the funeral, of which she knew nothing. He asked: “Why do these rules, now legally enforceable with the power of the law, apply to everybody else but Sinn Féiners?”
In the end, the Beragh parish priest cleared up the confusion. Monsignor Colum Curry said the funeral was conducted in line with public health guidance and confirmed it was not a republican funeral.
The priest said he was flabbergasted to hear the funeral service being raised at Stormont and described Stalford’s comments as an “absolute disgrace”.
He said all who attended inside the church and outside acted in line with public health guidance. The coffin had been draped with an Irish tricolour during part of the procession to the church as it is the practice for those who served in the regular 26 County Army.
Following the service, Msgr Curry said the avid GAA fan, originally from Dublin, also had the county flag placed on his coffin outside the church ahead of the burial, with a guard of honour provided a local GAA club.
Monsignor Curry said he became aware of Mr Stalford’s comments while watching a television news programme on Wednesday night.
“I was just taken aback. I thought somebody was either being mischievous or totally stupid,” he said.
He said the bereaved family would be very upset and very offended.
“I was watching the news to find out was there any [Covid-19] guidance in relation to places of worship, and there was a question raised in the Assembly about a ‘republican funeral’ which took place in Beragh.
“I was flabbergasted. When I heard the name Beragh mentioned I thought they must be getting mixed up with somewhere else.”
Monsignor Curry said he later contacted the undertaker who confirmed for him the tricolour had been placed on the coffin during the procession due to Mr Duffy’s military career.
He added: “For somebody to construe that into being a ‘major republican funeral’ is an absolute disgrace, and I think it portrays a certain amount of ignorance and bad manners.”
Meanwhile, the DUP has ignored criticism of the party’s MP, Sammy Wilson, who was seen this week at a crowded seaside town in County Antrim, a journey in breach of Covid-19 regulations. Wilson was at the time was subject to a 10-day quarantine restriction due to having visited London days earlier.
The SDLP’s Matthew O’Toole said Mr Wilson’s conduct was a “rolling scandal”. The PSNI, who are continuing to investigate supposed wrongdoing at the Storey funeral, declined to comment on the incident.