Priest allows republican flags at funeral - unionists vent anger
Unionists have hit out after a priest fulfilled the dying wish of a lifelong republican and allowed his coffin to be draped in the Irish tricolour and Starry Plough during his funeral.
Requiem Mass for Irish Republican Socialist Party (IRSP) member David Ward took place on Saturday morning at Dungiven Parish in Co Londonderry.
His coffin was carried into the church draped in the tricolour and the Starry Plough - a flag closely associated with the INLA.
Church authorities banned national flag and paramilitary trappings on coffins inside churches at the end of the 1980s.
Then Bishop of Derry Edward Daly introduced the ban after shots were fired over the coffin of an IRA man inside the grounds of Londonderry's Long Tower Church in 1987.
DUP MP Gregory Campbell said allowing flags inside churches was "harking back to the violence and murders of the past".
"It's 2017, we shouldn't be having these kind of trappings at funerals," he said. "Given that it was 30 years since the last time this happened - and for the most part the ban has been adhered to - that is an indication of a move away from the past.
"This is a very retrograde step and hopefully as a result of this, various Catholic Churches that might be facing this same type of scenario will take a more consistent approach to try and move forward rather than harking back to the violence and murders of the past."
But IRSP member Willie Gallagher, who was at the funeral, urged the Catholic Church to change their flag policy and "show courtesy to republicans".
"David was a friend, an IRSP member and a comrade," he said. "David had made his wishes known, that he wanted the flags on his coffin.
"The family had told the priest that if the church insisted on removing the Starry Plough and tricolour from the coffin in the church, they would refuse to go into the chapel and take him straight for burial. The priest accepted that."
Mr Gallagher added: "It is an important thing for republicans to have their flags on.
"It was so important to David Ward that he left it in his final wishes and the family wanted to honour his wishes.
"It was a personal touch for the family and we would call on the Catholic Church to allow all republican funerals the courtesy to have the flags left on the coffins during the funeral Mass.
"Times have changed. There are no shots fired over the coffin in the church grounds. All that we are asking for is to have the flags kept on during the Mass. For us, taking a flag off is really a sign of disrespect on behalf of the Catholic Church."
Dungiven Parish Priest Fr Seamus Kelly refused to comment.
A spokesperson for the Catholic Church said the flags were completely covered during the Mass - a claim refuted by those in attendance.
"By prior agreement with the family of the deceased, a large white pall (which is a large white cloth symbolising baptism) was placed over to completely cover the coffin," the spokesperson said. "The two flags, which had been placed on it by the family, were completely covered by the pall throughout the funeral liturgy."
After three decades, the debate around flags at funerals was again sparked in March after the tricolour-draped coffin of former Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness was allowed into Long Tower Church during his Requiem Mass.