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Sinn Fein's McDonald pays tribute to former IRA man and veteran republican Bobby Storey

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Bobby Storey

Bobby Storey

Kevin Scott / Presseye

Bobby Storey

Sinn Fein has paid tribute to senior republican and former leading IRA figure Bobby Storey in the wake of his death.

Storey, from west Belfast, was a highly influential presence within the republican movement throughout the Troubles and subsequent peace process.

The former Sinn Fein chairman was aged in his mid 60s and had been unwell for a period of time.

The former IRA commander was also a close ally of former party leader Gerry Adams.

Party president Mary Lou McDonald said yesterday: "It was with deep sadness that I learned today of the death of Bobby Storey.

"Bobby was a lifelong and very deeply committed Irish republican whose passing will be received with great sadness by republicans throughout Ireland."

Storey spent more than 20 years in prison during the Troubles. He was sentenced to 18 years for possession of a rifle in 1981 and also spent several periods behind bars remanded on other charges.

As a teenager, he had been interned without charge. He later took part in a 1983 escape of prisoners, in which 38 Provisional IRA inmates escaped from the top-security Maze Prison in the biggest jailbreak in Europe since the Second World War.

One prison officer was shot in the head, but survived; a second was stabbed three times in the chest and died.

After his release in 1994, Mr Storey went on to play a prominent role in the development of Sinn Fein, serving as chairperson of Sinn Fein in Belfast and then chairperson of the party's Six County Cuige.

In 2005, then Ulster Unionist MP David Burnside used parliamentary privilege to claim that Storey was the IRA's head of intelligence.

Mr Storey was questioned about the 2002 theft of security files from the Special Branch headquarters at Castlereagh police station and about the 2004 Northern Bank robbery.

In 2014, he was questioned about the disappearance of Jean McConville, a west Belfast moth-er-of-10 murdered and buried in secret by the IRA in 1972.

Two years ago, his house was targeted in an attack Sinn Fein blamed on dissident republicans.

Three years earlier, police investigating the murder of former IRA member Kevin McGuigan in Belfast arrested Storey.

He was subsequently released without charge.

In a press conference after his release, he compared the IRA to a caterpillar, insisting the organisation had become a "butterfly" and had "flew away".

"The IRA has gone," he said.

"They have left the stage, they are away and they're not coming back."

Ms McDonald described him as a "champion of the peace process".

"Bobby was extremely committed to the pursuit of a united Ireland with equality and social justice for all," she said.

Sinn Fein deputy leader Michelle O'Neill said: "Bobby Storey was a lifelong republican activist, former IRA prisoner and escapee and longstanding member of Sinn Fein who played a vital role in developing the peace and political process.

"He was a committed, selfless comrade whose contribution to the struggle for national liberation earned him the full respect of his generation."

She said funeral arrangements will be announced in due course.

Belfast Telegraph