'I am very sorry': Mary Lou McDonald apologises for Bobby Storey funeral crowds

Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald during the funeral of senior Irish Republican and former leading IRA figure Bobby Storey at the Republican plot at Milltown Cemetery in west Belfast.
By Aoife Moore

The Sinn Fein President has apologised for the flouting of social distancing rules during a funeral procession.

Party president Mary Lou McDonald, Michelle O'Neill, Pearse Doherty and Gerry Adams were all pictured at the funeral of long-time Sinn Féin advisor Bobby Storey on Tuesday in Belfast.

The funeral of the popular republican and former IRA leader drew crowds of over 1,500 people, many of whom could be seen in pictures and video crowded together, ignoring social distancing rules.

Ms McDonald told Newstalk on Friday, that she was "acutely conscious" of everyone who has lost a loved one during "the most difficult and heartbreaking and lonely of circumstances".

"I do understand that looking at the images of very busy pathways in West Belfast, obviously has jolted and has caused some hurt amongst some of those families and for that, I am very sorry, that certainly would never be my intention or Michelle's intention," she said.

Although not mandatory in the north, few people were seen wearing masks at the funeral, with none of the Sinn Féin leadership doing so.

Pictures later emerged of Michelle O'Neill included in a selfie with mourners.

Guidance from Northern Ireland's Executive for funerals states that they should be held in private with a maximum of 30 people present.

The furore about the Sinn Fein's leaders attendance has not abated since the pictures were released, with the DUP leadership calling for Northern Ireland's deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill to stand aside. A request that she has refused.

Ms McDonald, who recited a reading at the private church service at the request of the family, said everything that could've been done to keep to guidelines had been carried out, including liaison with the PSNI, however she accepts that rules were broken.

"Bobby was a public figure and not just for Sinn Fein, but a huge, huge figure for West Belfast, and for Belfast more generally, and for the north," she added.

"So, of course there was always going to be an issue around how all of this was handled.

"Every effort was gone to, to manage and to minimise the crowds.

"I accept that certainly in terms of the numbers that turned out on the pavements to show their respect, to Bobby and to the family, those were large crowds and social distancing when people come out in those numbers is very very difficult if not impossible, so I understand the anxiety, looking at that, I get that."

Ms McDonald says that is "entirely wrong and unfair" to say her party is loyal first to the party itself rather than the laws of the state.

"I think it's the kind of line of argument that is deployed against us by people who are less concerned with genuine public health concerns, and more concerned with creating a political furore around the burial of a loved one," she added.