Decisions on how Bobby Storey’s cremation was handled were taken impartially and in line with coronavirus rules, Belfast City Council has insisted.
Further questions about Mr Storey’s funeral have been raised after it was confirmed the veteran republican was cremated in a different part of Belfast to where a major graveyard ceremony was held.
The city council faced calls for an explanation after it emerged some cemetery staff were sent home early ahead of the cremation at Roselawn in east Belfast at 3.30pm on Tuesday.
Hours earlier, crowds gathered inside Milltown cemetery in the west of the city for a ceremony for the former leading IRA figure following his funeral at St Agnes’ church.
Hundreds lined the route as the cortege proceeded more than a mile from St Agnes’ to Milltown.
The Ulster Unionist Party has asked why the Milltown cemetery event was held, amid the current lockdown restrictions, if Mr Storey was cremated elsewhere.
First Minister Arlene Foster has asked why the ceremony at Milltown could not have taken place at a later date, when lockdown restrictions had been eased.
But Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill insisted everything that happened at Roselawn was done in compliance with council guidelines.
She urged people to stop “stirring the pot” over the issue and give the Storey family space to grieve.
While some Belfast City Council staff remained at Roselawn for Mr Storey’s cremation – including park wardens, managers and crematorium staff – a number of stewards nominated by the Storey family took responsibility for identifying those people who had been invited to the private event.
Time slots for later burials and cremations after Mr Storey’s cremation were blocked off on the Roselawn booking system. The council said that is the approach taken for high profile funerals that might attract large crowds.
Burial staff and some other non-cremation staff who were due to finish work at 4pm were instead sent home between 2pm and 3pm.
Visiting time at Roselawn cemetery is currently restricted during the lockdown, so people wishing to visit graves on Tuesday afternoon would not have been able to access the site whether or not Mr Storey’s cremation was taking place.
Ulster Unionist MLA Doug Beattie said: “The news that Bobby Storey was cremated in Roselawn cemetery on Tuesday raises a number of questions for Sinn Fein.
“Firstly, why – in the midst of a global pandemic – did they feel the need to call hundreds of people onto the streets of west Belfast if the plan all along was to hold a cremation ceremony several miles away in the east of the city?
“And secondly – what was the point in taking a coffin to a graveyard only to then transport it to a crematorium? Were people’s lives really put at risk from Covid-19 just so Gerry Adams could perform a speaking engagement in Milltown cemetery?
“If people were angry at Sinn Fein due to the lack of social distancing on display at the funeral, they will be furious to learn that the procession to Milltown was nothing more than a needless piece of republican street theatre, and that the real destination was Roselawn all along.”
Later on Thursday, DUP leader Mrs Foster said: “We’re now told Mr Storey wasn’t actually buried in Milltown, he was taken to Roselawn cemetery.
“So why was there a need to process from the chapel to Milltown cemetery, was that a necessary thing to do?
“Or was it something that could have been done at a later date if people desired to do?
“Those are the sorts of questions that I don’t think have been answered. I think there is a need to have those answers.”
Belfast City Council said the operational decisions were made “impartially”, noting that such decisions are often taken in a “complex and difficult political environment”.
The council said coronavirus rules restrict cremations to outdoor services outside the crematorium chapel with no more than 30 able to attend.
“All cremations held on Tuesday complied with the guidance set out by the NI Executive,” it stated. The council said one of its councillors had asked officials what would be permissible on Tuesday.
“Council officials confirmed the NI Executive guidance,” the council said.
“That local elected representative also informed the council officials that people, appointed by the family, would be on site to assist the family in ensuring that the only people given access to the site would be family. These people, playing a stewarding role for family would work with Belfast City Council staff to ensure that those allowed on the site were only those permitted by the family. This is no different to what would normally be the case in a high profile cremation or one that would potentially attract high numbers of people or media.
“There were two Belfast City Council staff at the bottom gate of the crematorium and these staff were in radio contact with a manager who was outside Roselawn Crematorium. A staff presence at the gates has been a necessary arrangement throughout the response to Covid-19.”
In regard to staff being sent home earlier, the council said: “This decision was made in order to avoid a situation where staff would be photographed, as has happened with other high profile funerals or sensitive cremations in the past.
“The decision was also made given that crematorium staff did not know what numbers would be present outside of the site, and potentially try to gain access, it made sense operationally that staff who did not need to be there could leave before potential volumes of traffic and media arrived. Fifteen members of staff were left on site.”
Th council added: “Belfast City Council made an operational decision to hold the last three cremation slots of the day. This decision was made in order to ensure that there were no other cremations later that day – in order to protect the privacy of other members of the public and their cremation services.
“Belfast City Council did not know whether to anticipate high numbers or otherwise and therefore planned for all instances. This would be normal practice in the event of a high profile cremation. There is currently no waiting list at Roselawn Crematorium and no cremations were cancelled.
“Operational decisions like these, made by Belfast City Council are made impartially in what is often a complex and difficult political environment.”