The reputation of Belfast City Council (BCC) has taken an “awful blow” due to its handling of the cremation of former IRA man Bobby Storey last year, a councillor has said.
Some heated words were exchanged over the issue at the monthly meeting of the council on Monday night, following the publication of an independent report into BCC’s handling of the cremation last week.
The report, running to 116 pages and costing around £50,000, found no evidence the service was handled differently due to Mr Storey’s connections to Sinn Fein and no evidence of political influence on council chief executive Suzanne Wylie over the matter.
Conducted by barrister Peter Coll, the probe examined how Mr Storey’s relatives were treated differently to eight other families who had cremations on the same day as the IRA man in June last year.
The other families were kept at the gates of Roselawn Crematorium while up to 30 mourners were allowed inside to attend the service for Mr Storey.
Speaking during Monday night’s virtual meeting, SDLP council group leader Donal Lyons said: “I think that the reputation of this council has taken an awful blow, not only in the context of the report, but in terms of a basic level of empathy.
“You can understand the anguish that the eight families who were treated differently went through. The report is tough reading for that fact. I do recognise the pressure that all staff in this organisation were working under at the time, and indeed continue to operate under... going forward out of this we do need to make exceptional efforts to rehabilitate our reputation.”
Sinn Fein council group leader Ciaran Beattie said BCC is in a unique position where it is probably the only local authority in Europe to hold an investigation into the cremation of one of its citizens.
“And I’m not sure it would have happened if Bobby Storey had been another person. It was because Bobby Storey was a member of Sinn Fein, it was because Bobby Storey was a republican that misinformation was put out from the very start to whip up a storm, to try and create the circumstances for an investigation... The investigation was agreed to by all parties, except for Sinn Fein and People Before Profit... they’ve had their investigation and now they don’t like it.
“I said at the start: none of this happened. The conspiracy theories that some spun on the radio, that were put into the public domain through media outlets — it didn’t happen. There was not a takeover of the cemetery — that was fantasy. There wasn’t 61 people at the service — that was fantasy. All these people running about the cemetery — that was fantasy. Pressure put on staff didn’t happen. It was all nonsense.
“Now, the eight families that were affected, it was terrible what happened to them. They should never have been treated differently, but that wasn’t requested. No one requested they be treated differently.
“We need to put this to bed, but there were nine families who were hurt. Bobby Storey’s family went through eight months of feeling as if they were doing something illegal, which they didn’t. They were vilified through the media, when they did nothing wrong. We were right to apologise to all the families, and we need to move on.”
Alliance council group leader Nuala McAllister said her party “from day one has not talked about conspiracy theories, not talked about media hype, but we have actually talked about the heartbreak of the families concerned”.
“I will agree with Ciaran that we are where we are and we got the investigation, we did,” she added.
“And we do need to move forward, but we need to move forward in a meaningful way. We need to rebuild relationships that have broken down, unnecessarily I would say, between councillors and council officers.”