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Bishop wrong to say split on grave visits party infighting, says Sinn Fein's Conor Murphy

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Conor Murphy

Conor Murphy

Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press E

Conor Murphy

A senior Sinn Fein figure has criticised comments made by a Catholic bishop on the reopening of cemeteries in Northern Ireland.

Finance Minister Conor Murphy said the intervention by Bishop of Derry Dr Donal McKeown on the matter was "unfortunate".

The decision to prevent people from visiting their loved ones' graves has divided the parties.

Cemeteries were closed when the lockdown was announced last month. However, some have asked why other places, such as off-licences, have remained open.

The Executive is due to discuss the matter today amid growing pressure from bereaved families, clergy and bereavement experts for a rethink.

Bishop McKeown told BBC Radio Foyle that politicians were "struggling to get things right" and said he wished to see the logic behind the decision to close cemeteries.

Yesterday Mr Murphy said the bishop had characterised the differing views between the parties on cemeteries as "political infighting".

He added that if Bishop McKeown reconsidered his choice of words "he might come up with something different".

"The Executive discusses these things on a very regular basis," Mr Murphy said.

Council-run graveyards were closed last month as part of coronavirus movement restrictions.

But calls have been mounting to have them reopened.

The DUP and UUP support reopening, while Sinn Fein and the Alliance Party remain opposed.

Health Minister Robin Swann said yesterday he "doesn't see any reason why" they should be closed.

But he said it was not his decision to make, adding that the Executive will be discussing the matter today, with expert advice from chief medical officer Michael McBride and chief scientific adviser Ian Young.

"They could be managed with appropriate measures and supports put in place, because in terms of the mental support that we need to give individuals, there are a number of people in our community who get that reassurance, that mental support and strength, by going to a graveyard and visiting a grave," Mr Swann told the health committee.

"Again, it's about the balances that we put in to make sure support mechanisms and restrictions and regulations we put in don't have an adverse effect.

"The chief medical officer and the chief scientific adviser are providing an input into a number of questions to the Executive tomorrow and at that point the Executive will make the decision because, although the regulations that are in place are in the name of health, I brought them forward on behalf of the Executive.

"The decision will lie with the Executive either to ease those or strengthen those."

Yesterday, Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey said all of the "draconian measures" needed to save lives are "kept under constant review".

This includes opening the cemeteries for people to visit the graves of loved ones, which she acknowledged is a sensitive issue.

"But we are going by the public health, medical and scientific evidence to keep people safe," Ms Hargey told the Belfast Telegraph.

There are other issues relating to opening cemeteries, she said, adding that these are based around not doing anything to lift restrictions too early.

She added: "We are currently reviewing this."

Today a series of bereaved families tell this newspaper of their pain at not being able to visit loved ones' graves.

They include the mother of Co Down man Karl Heaney, who was killed in a collision on the A1 almost two years ago. Monica Heaney said she "can't see the logic" behind the closure of cemeteries.

Concerns, meanwhile, have been voiced regarding the impact on grieving families' mental health.

Paul Finnegan, director of Cruse Bereavement Care in Northern Ireland, said the closure of cemeteries means people are missing out on a vital part of the grieving process.

He said: "We are hearing from lots of people who are saying that they just want to be able to do this one thing (going to the cemetery) and they don't understand the reasons why they can't if they are going to be really careful."

Mr Finnegan is concerned about the impact of cemetery closures on people's mental health.

He added: "When you are dealing with loss, things like going to a grave can be enormously comforting and when you take that away, you are taking away a comfort blanket.

"People who go to graves can also feel a sense of guilt, maybe because they weren't with the person when they died or had a row with them just beforehand. Going there can help them overcome that feeling."

Fr Patrick McCafferty, parish priest of Corpus Christi in west Belfast, said: "It's part of their daily routine, no matter what the weather, so if there is some way that cemeteries could be re-opened in a safe way it would desirable in terms of their well-being and state of mind."

Belfast Telegraph