Mairia Cahill buried her grandmother last week, but was disgusted by the political circus at another Belfast funeral
Last week we buried my Granny Nora. She was a constant in my life; much loved, and will be deeply missed. She was a lovely woman, born in Cork in 1928 and later moved to Belfast, though she never forgot her roots. Although not tall in stature, barely reaching 5ft, she was a giant of a woman.
A man who stood six feet four, but who was low on morals, also died last week - the former IRA leader Bobby Storey.
Their paths crossed on one occasion a few years ago when my rape case was still in the court system. I regularly took my granny shopping, and we were in a west Belfast supermarket.
As granny and I rounded the aisle, there was Storey, whom I knew well, taking something off the shelf. Storey took a few steps towards me, lowered his green basket slowly to the floor and then took a few more steps still, locking eyes with me the whole time.
He menaced a bit, and I stood my ground until he dropped his gorilla stance.
My granny, who was in her late 80s at the time, took in the scene, asked me who he was, and when I told her not to worry, not wanting to upset her, she loudly proclaimed that if he came any closer, she would put her "toe up his hole".
It is a comical moment now, the image of my granny who barely reached his waist, taking on all 6ft 4 of him - but that was typical Nora. No one was going to intimidate her granddaughter - or stop her from getting her two-for-one offer.
The man, who in 2014 issued a diktat to Sinn Fein members encouraging them to comment on my "political opposition" when I waived anonymity on my abuse by an IRA member, simply skulked off. Others over the years who crossed him were not as fortunate.
It was tough, burying our granny in line with Stormont's funeral guidelines, casting aside the traditional wake and grieving rituals, restricting numbers into the church and watching her laid into the ground by gravediggers with masks and blue boiler suits on. The priest at her funeral remarked that had it not been for Covid, he had no doubt the church would be full, rather than the smaller number of us who were able to attend.
Contrast this with Bobby Storey's funeral five days later. Despite government guidelines stating that arrangements should not be advertised, it was.
Wake house signs went up on the lampposts in west Belfast, social media announcements appeared, and men in white shirts and black ties directed mourners to the family home beside Casement Park. On the morning of the funeral, streets were blocked off to facilitate a large crowd gathered along the roadside. Mary Lou McDonald, Pearse Doherty, Sean Crowe, Michelle O'Neill, and Gerry Adams were among the Sinn Fein top brass attending.
A loss during a pandemic is particularly tough, and mourning is the natural stage of any grieving process. Nothing is normal, however, about the situation we find ourselves in - and so the process has changed. Many of us have had to make cruel sacrifices.
In April, the Deputy First Minster stated "no one is exempt" from funeral guidance. "The rules are there for a reason," she said. "Everyone needs to follow the rules." The day before the funeral, she said people should "observe the public health advice".
It is unsurprising therefore, that the attendance of various senior republicans, including O'Neill herself, caused anger across the community.
Last Wednesday, O'Neill insisted the funeral was "all done in accordance with the guidelines", which made a mockery of those of us with eyes who could see media footage. A photograph of her with two men in a 'selfie' emerged, arms wrapped around her as they stood smiling, headstones behind them. Apart from the obvious bad taste, the unintended symbolism could not be missed.
It was a kick in the teeth for anyone who has lost a loved one during this current pandemic, to see the woman who has consistently used her position to urge the public to adhere to social distancing, disregard her own advice for a happy snap.
Appearing in front of the Executive Committee that afternoon, O'Neill conceded the selfie should not have happened, but stood over her other actions.
This appearance forced the DUP's hand, and they joined a chorus of calls from other political parties for her to stand aside - something she, backed by Mary Lou McDonald, has refused to do. The Northern Ireland Executive is on life support as a result.
If Sinn Fein really cared about the people of west Belfast, it could have ensured that the community's well-being was not jeopardised in a very public display, mid public health crisis.
Was the risk of spreading a disease that is deadly to people with respiratory symptoms at a funeral of an IRA man who ironically died during a double lung transplant, worth it?
McDonald and O'Neill had an opportunity to show real leadership and not travel to the area, much less allow themselves to be photographed smiling in the resting place of the buried dead. The damage caused to the public health message the NI Executive had urged people to take seriously is incalculable as a result.
No wonder, then, that charges of hypocrisy ensued against the party, who appear to be completely tone deaf to the level of anger and distress they have caused. As it turned out, the display at Milltown Cemetery was completely unnecessary - Storey was not even buried there, but cremated a 30-minute drive away.
No explanation from Sinn Fein regarding the apparent arrogance in disregarding the public health message to hold a mass gathering - when there was no intention to do anything with his coffin there, except fold up a flag and provide a political circus.
Last Thursday, Mary Lou McDonald unveiled her front bench on the same day some of those bereaved, through Covid, were calling into radio shows obviously distressed and angry at Sinn Fein's handling of the Storey funeral. This front bench, she said, would hold the Government to account.
Wouldn't she be better looking in her own back yard?
A small mercy in this whole affair is that Sinn Fein are not in Government in Dublin. One crisis in cabinet north of the border is quite enough, though it's an illustration of the poor judgement of those in charge of the party, that the response when met with a tsunami of criticism, was to double down initially rather than simply apologising for quite obviously getting it wrong.
A half-apology came on Friday - which wouldn't have looked out of place in the Trumpian school of politics. O'Neill and McDonald were sorry for any hurt caused, but there was little contrition over Sinn Fein organising the event in the first place.
I leave the last word to a man who sent me a social media message regarding the Storey funeral display.
"I had to stand in a car park and watch my father leave a funeral home, no service, no minister and a handful of family in attendance. Absolutely disgusted…"
He has every right to be. Shame on the Sinn Fein leadership for their actions last week. Shame on them.