Police probe after crowds gather at republican funeral

Police have launched an investigation after a sizeable crowd attended the funeral of a veteran republican in Londonderry.

Eamonn 'Peggy' McCourt, from Creggan in Derry, died at the weekend having contracted Covid-19.

His funeral was held on Monday in the city. Images later emerged of a large crowd following a hearse flanked by two lines of mourners in white shirts.

Tight restrictions on the number of people who can attend funerals are currently in force as part of Covid-19 regulations.

PSNI chief superintendent Darrin Jones said: "Over the weekend, police became aware of a funeral, planned for Monday 25 January, which had the potential to draw a significant number of people.

"As a result, police engaged with representatives of the family of the deceased, the local church and local political representatives.

"Across these engagements, police emphasised the need for adherence to the current health protection regulations. As a result, police were given a number of assurances as to the conduct of the funeral, and that people would seek to pay their respects to the deceased from outside their homes rather than gather at the funeral.

"Regrettably at the funeral on Monday morning, a significant number of people gathered as part of the cortege, in a manner likely to be in breach of the health protection regulations.

"As a result, police have commenced an investigation into the matter, and where individuals are identified as potentially being in breach of the regulations, they will be reported to the Public Prosecution Service with a view to prosecution."

A political crisis erupted in Northern Ireland last June after senior Sinn Fein members attended the funeral of IRA veteran Bobby Storey - an event that saw hundreds take to the streets at a time when strict limits on numbers also applied.

Mr McCourt was a Sinn Fein activist and former IRA member who was badly injured when the SAS opened fire on a car in Derry in 1981. Two other IRA men were killed in the shooting.

DUP Assembly member for Foyle Gary Middleton said: "These scenes from another republican funeral will be greeted with dismay by the vast majority of the public who have abided by the letter of the law throughout Covid-19.

"It is hard to put into words the sheer recklessness of those involved. This is compounded by the fact that Mr McCourt passed away after contracting Covid-19 and at the funeral it was stated his death had brought 'the reality' of coronavirus to the community.

"The reality of Covid-19 is that restrictions on funerals are difficult and even painful for grieving families, but they have been put in place for an important reason. Many families have faced such grief without the wider support of family and friends present as would be the case normally.

"Countless people have made the difficult decision to find an alternative way to pay their respects because they know the risks associated with such public gatherings and to ensure they complied with the law.

"Within republicanism it seems that certain individuals are viewed as being more important than public health regulations."

He added: "Such sights are most painful for relatives who have recognised the need for such painful restrictions to be put in place and have abided by them."

A Sinn Fein spokesman said the party was not involved in organising the funeral.

"Eamonn McCourt's funeral was arranged by his family," he said. "Sinn Fein will be holding its own tribute to his memory online."