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Fionola Meredith

Why this boneheaded ban on opening cemeteries is not just patronising and insulting... it's also a huge mistake

Fionola Meredith

It's not enough to parrot 'stay home, save lives'. Produce just one scientist who believes graveyards must remain shut in order to protect the public from Covid-19, demands Fionola Meredith


Locked gates at Carnmoney Cemetery

Locked gates at Carnmoney Cemetery

Locked gates at Carnmoney Cemetery

As the world reels from the impact of coronavirus and draconian social lockdown, and as governments face the near-impossible task of how and when to lift the restrictions, Northern Ireland's political parties are divided once more. This time, they can't agree over whether people should be permitted to visit graveyards.

Currently, cemeteries are closed as part of the lockdown measures. The DUP and UUP want to change this, saying cemetery visits could be allowed on a controlled basis.

Sinn Fein and Alliance are opposed, although Alliance deputy leader Stephen Farry, says the party is "prepared to reconsider" the issue, but only if the scientific evidence changes.

The SDLP wants further advice from health officials before it takes a position.

Sinn Fein junior minister Declan Kearney told the Assembly that keeping cemeteries closed was necessary.

"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 at gravesides can provide, but that is the price we must pay," he said.

"No other interest can take primacy over our public health."

Certainly. But does anybody seriously believe that allowing bereaved people to visit their loved ones' graves is a threat to public health?

Mr Farry speaks of reconsidering the closures if the scientific evidence changes, but where is the scientific evidence which proves - or even suggests - that keeping cemeteries open presents any kind of additional risk?

Show me a single credible scientist who believes that graveyards must remain shut to protect people from contracting Covid-19.

As many bereaved relatives have very reasonably asked, why does the law permit people to queue up outside supermarkets and off-licenses but refuses them access to the graves of their family?

The churches are listening, even if some politicians are not.

The Church of Ireland Bishop of Derry and Raphoe, Rev Andrew Forster, said the decision should "be looked at again".

Dr Donal McKeown, the Catholic Bishop of Derry, has asked the Executive to give "some sense of logic" for the motivation behind this particular piece of legislation.

The absence of logic is, indeed, striking. I would like Sinn Fein and Alliance to explain, in detailed terms, what exactly they think the difference is between people entering a park and people entering a graveyard.

Both are open public spaces. If social distancing measures are in place, then why is it permissible to visit one and not the other?

There's an overwhelmingly strong case for keeping parks open during this time of dreadful stress, so that people - particularly those who have no outside space at home - can exercise, breathe fresh air and help keep themselves as fit and sane as possible. Kudos to Belfast City Council for keeping their parks open right from the start of the lockdown, when many other councils slammed the gates shut immediately, though some are starting to open them again now, belatedly realising how important they are for public health.

The emotional need for people to visit family graves is different but no less compelling. For many newly bereaved relatives, spending time at a graveside is an essential part of their ability to cope.

Even when the loss was some years ago, the need to return to the resting place of the beloved person remains. Such visits are likely to be quiet or perhaps solitary occurrences. For the most part, graveyards stand virtually empty.

The stories we have been hearing are heartbreaking: parents who have lost children, children who have lost parents, partners who have lost their lifelong mate.

They deal with their grief by going to the grave. It helps them find a measure of peace. But now they have been denied that comfort, left shut out on the other side of a locked gate.

Not surprisingly, people are getting angry. They're getting desperate. Some say that no rule on earth will prevent them from going to their loved ones' place of rest.

There's talk on social media of bereaved relatives vowing to climb over gates, fences and walls - whatever it takes - in order to get in to cemeteries.

If you are going to subject people to this level of emotional distress, you'd better have sound scientific evidence to demonstrate that it is necessary in the fight against coronavirus. I ask again, where is this evidence?

What we are seeing here, I believe, is the victory of process over purpose. The extraordinary restrictions were enacted in an attempt to save lives and prevent the NHS from becoming overwhelmed: that was, and is, the declared purpose.

But when process - the authoritarian implementation of the rules - becomes the point, public trust is damaged.

To be effective and to retain the trust and cooperation of the public, rules must be seen to be tempered with common sense and sound scientific evidence.

If you treat the public like children, imposing rules that are manifestly unfair and disproportionate, they will rebel.

I suspect that some politicians are reluctant to reopen cemeteries because they fear that any perceived dilution of the lockdown laws and guidelines will result in increased flouting of all the special measures.

In the same way, the UK Government is reluctant to discuss its exit strategy from lockdown, on the grounds that it would distract focus from the 'stay at home, save lives' message.

This is not just patronising and insulting. It's also a big mistake.

The people of Northern Ireland have shown themselves to be remarkably willing to sacrifice their liberty in the fight against coronavirus.

They are much more likely to continue complying if they are treated with respect.

Open the cemeteries and let people grieve. It's in the interests of everyone.

Belfast Telegraph