A veteran republican has been remembered as an IRA man who helped to build Sinn Fein into the political party it is today.
Large crowds turned out in west Belfast to pay a final farewell to Bobby Storey despite social-distancing rules, prompting sharp criticism.
Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill, Finance minister Conor Murphy, Sinn Fein president Mary-Lou McDonald and former Sinn Fein chief Gerry Adams were among those who took part.
Mr Storey died earlier this month at the age of 64 following an unsuccessful lung transplant.
During his life he became a highly influential presence within his community throughout the Troubles and subsequent peace process.
A guard of honour lined the streets of Andersonstown on Tuesday morning as his remains were transported to St Agnes’ Church for a funeral service conducted by Father Gary Donegan.
The coffin was draped in an Irish tricolour.
Police maintained a low key presence in the area during proceedings.
Fr Donegan reflected on how Mr Storey had grown up in north Belfast where his family were intimidated from their home.
He also described Mr Storey as “devoted” to his partner Teresa and the delight he took in his children and grandchildren.
Following the service, the guard of honour continued for just over a mile to Milltown Cemetery where there was spontaneous applause as a procession passed.
A large crowd gathered at the republican plot in the historic graveyard where Mr Adams and Sinn Fein MLA Gerry Kelly were among those who helped carry the coffin.
Donegal TD Pearse Doherty described Mr Storey as an “inspirational republican leader”, before deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill read the Robert Frost poem The Road Not Taken in his memory.
Mr Adams delivered the main oration during which he credited Mr Storey with building Sinn Fein to the size and influence it has today.
Mr Adams said that when released from jail for the final time in 1998, Mr Storey was 44 years old and had spent more than 20 years of his life in prison.
He went on to quote Mr Storey saying “a life of struggle is a life well lived”, before telling those gathered that Sinn Fein was and remains “proud” of those who were involved in the IRA.
“We are proud and glad that Bob and other former IRA volunteers are part of what we are,” he said.
“We are also proud of Bob and the others when they were IRA Volunteers.
“They and their support base and republican Ireland defeated the British Army. They brought us and their political masters to the negotiating table.”
Mr Adams went on to describe Mr Storey’s death as a “huge political blow for republicans”, adding: “There is a void in our lives.”
“He would want us to continue our struggle and to win that struggle. And that my friends and comrades is what we will do,” he said.
The size of the crowds that gathered for Mr Storey drew immediate criticism from Sinn Fein’s political rivals amid claims of multiple breaches of coronavirus regulations limiting the size of public gatherings in Northern Ireland.
Ulster Unionist MLA Doug Beattie contrasted Deputy First Minister Ms O’Neill’s public utterances on limiting numbers at funerals to her attendance at Tuesday’s event.
“Having watched families unable to attend funerals or be with their loved one as they passed away I think this undermines the credibility of our Executive Office,” he tweeted.
Traditional Unionist Voice leader Jim Allister said Ms O’Neill’s position was no longer tenable.
“In light of the fact that Ms O’Neill is today present with many hundreds of others at the funeral of Bobby Storey her position is untenable,” he said.
“Her conduct is grossly offensive and insulting to the many law-abiding people who have made the huge sacrifice of foregoing a normal funeral as they said farewell to family members who died recently.”
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