Belfast Telegraph

Republican funeral row SDLP MLA told to quit justice role

By Brendan McDaid

A rising star of the SDLP was last night facing calls to be stripped of his Stormont post after taking part in a republican funeral with paramilitary trappings.

A rising star of the SDLP was last night facing calls to be stripped of his Stormont post after taking part in a republican funeral with paramilitary trappings.

Former Derry City Council Mayor Colum Eastwood has defended his decision to carry the coffin of former IRA man Seamus Coyle while flanked by a colour party in paramilitary uniform.

The Foyle MLA carried the remains before a masked member of the Real IRA fired up to a dozen shots from an automatic rifle over the INLA man’s coffin.

Victims of Real IRA violence last night voiced concerns over the actions of the SDLP MLA as the Alliance Party called for him to be removed from his post on the Stormont Justice Committee.

Mr Eastwood defended his decision to attend the funeral in Londonderry on Tuesday. He said that while their political views differed, Mr Coyle was his friend.

He vowed that he “will not stand back and disown those who I disagree with” but also stressed that he was not present when the shots were fired.

SDLP party leader Alasdair McDonnell has refused to comment on whether sanctions would be imposed on Mr Eastwood.

Alliance Justice spokesman Stewart Dickson MLA called on Dr McDonnell to remove Mr Eastwood from the Justice committee.

“This is such a serious situation that I would call on the SDLP leader Mr McDonnell to remove Mr Eastwood,” he said.

Michael Gallagher of the Omagh Bomb Victims’ Relatives Group, victims of the Real IRA explosion of 1998, said the SDLP man should have considered the ramifications of attending the funeral of a former paramilitary.

Mr Gallagher said: “Everybody, sadly, has got to think twice about what we do.

“People have a right to pay their respects at a funeral but we don’t want to be bringing extremists into play or possibly be construed as being supporting something they may be involved in.”

He said the image of gunmen sent a “very bad message about Northern Ireland and in particular about Derry”.

Mr Coyle had been a member of the Official IRA and INLA but is understood to have signed up to the peace process some time ago.

A masked gunman appeared among mourners and fired a volley of shots from a rifle over his coffin in the Rosemount Gardens area. Police have confirmed they are investigating the incident.

TUV leader Jim Allister and the DUP were also critical after the young politician was pictured carrying the flag-draped coffin.

He said: “A paramilitary funeral is no place for anyone who espouses the principles of a liberal democracy,” he said.

“Paramilitary groups have been responsible for some of the most horrendous violence that is imaginable. The SDLP in their time rightly condemned (Martin) McGuinness for carrying paramilitary coffins and here we have Mr Eastwood carrying out something that is parallel to that.”

DUP East Londonderry MP Gregory Campbell expressed concern.

“I am surprised that in the past there has been criticism, and I would have been supportive of the criticism, of the likes of Gerry Adams carrying coffins, and the SDLP were critical of him as well.”

He said most people would understand a politician attending the funeral of someone they knew, but said that carrying the coffin was different.

Mr Eastwood said he had known Seamus Coyle for years.

“I attended to mark the passing of a friend and to show support and compassion for his extended family. I am acutely aware and conscious that there is a family still grieving his loss. It is highly important that their hurt should not be added to.

“Myself and Seamus disagreed on many things, this did not and would not stop me from attending the marking of his death.”

Mr Coyle’s sister, Theresa Coyle, yesterday spoke out in support of Mr Eastwood.

“I don’t believe that anybody else has the right to pass judgment. Seamus has the right to have his friends there in whatever capacity they believe they want to be there.”

Profile

Seamus Coyle died aged 57 last weekend after a short illness. Known locally by his nickname ‘Chang’, he was a prominent republican in Londonderry. He had been a member of the Official IRA and was interned in 1971.

After the setting up of the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA) three years later, he became a member of that group.

In 1977, he was part of a group of men who fired a volley of shots over the funeral of INLA founder Seamus Costello in Bray, Co Wicklow.

In his later years he became active with the INLA’s political wing, the Irish Republican Socialist Party.

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