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DUP calls for NI cemeteries to reopen but SF says closure is a 'price we must pay' to beat coronavirus

Reopen cemeteries, says Antrim nurse who saw pensioner climb high fence to place flowers on wife's grave

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Closed: Cemetery gates remain shut in Northern Ireland

Closed: Cemetery gates remain shut in Northern Ireland

Closed: Cemetery gates remain shut in Northern Ireland

The DUP has called for Northern Ireland cemeteries to be reopened on a "controlled basis".

Sinn Fein, however, rejected the move saying it is a "price we must pay" to beat the coronavirus outbreak.

Junior Minister Declan Kearney said: "I and executive colleagues understand how difficult it is that members of our families, friends and community are being denied solace which moments of reflection by gravesides can provide, but that is the price we must pay.

"We have not beaten Covid-19. No other interest can take primacy over our public health."

Cemeteries are operated by councils and have been closed since the lockdown was announced last month. The Executive, however, does have power to reopen them through passing legislation at Stormont.

DUP MP Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said social distancing rules could be enforced and a one-way system be put in place to keep people apart.

"We believe it is possible to do this safely, to put in place measures that will protect people and at the same time enable them, if they need to, to visit their loved ones," he told BBC Radio Ulster's Nolan Show.

The DUP's Westminster leader said it did not make sense that people were able to go to supermarkets, but unable to visit cemeteries.

It comes as a Co Antrim nurse joined calls for Stormont to allow cemeteries to reopen to the public.

Janina Gurney (33) was speaking after coming to the aid of an elderly man who was attempting to visit his wife's grave at the cemetery in Cullybackey on Sunday.

On her way to start a night shift at Antrim Area Hospital, Janina spotted the man hanging over the fence as he tried to gain access to lay flowers to mark the anniversary of his wife's death.

Janina told the Belfast Telegraph: "I was driving to my work when I came by the cemetery on Fenaghy Road and I witnessed the elderly man, who was at least in his 70s and wearing a suit, hanging over the fence.

"I stopped my car immediately as I thought the poor man was going to fall and seriously hurt himself, as those fences are very high.

"He told me that it was his wife's nine-year anniversary and all he wanted to do was leave flowers on her grave.

"He had his two legs already over the railings when I got there, so I waited for him while he went in to the grave and came out again safely.

"He knew that the cemetery was closed, but as he said to me: 'How are people meant to grieve?'

"What concerns me the most is that this man was on his own and no one would have seen if he fell over the fence and lay there for God only knows how long.

"I know how he feels as, working in the hospital at the moment, we see people dying on their own when their loved ones, who are grieving, need to be with them."

The mother-of-one says she cannot understand why certain facilities in her area, such as recycling centres, are open but cemeteries remain out of bounds.

"This needs to change because no one should feel like they need to climb over a fence to visit their beloved family member," she added. "I just think it's so wrong."

New rules passed by the Executive mean graveyards must remain closed during the pandemic, with only those attending funerals allowed to enter. Current restrictions also mean that a maximum of 10 close family members can be present - socially distanced - at private funeral services and subsequent committals at cemeteries.

However, Roselawn Crematorium is out of bounds to all mourners.

Several online petitions have since been launched calling for cemeteries to reopen for the public.

SDLP health spokesman Mark H Durkan has written to Health Minister Robin Swann asking for the decision to close the graveyards to be reconsidered as a priority.

"I fully understand that the closure of our cemeteries has caused many people disappointment, difficulty and distress," the Foyle MLA said.

"I also appreciate that the decision to close was a difficult one for government, given its sensitivity, but that it was taken with the sole intention of reducing risk and saving lives.

"We should not compromise our commitment to either, but I believe that a controlled and safe reopening of cemeteries here is possible."

Belfast Telegraph