Gunshots at my great-aunt's burial show that paramilitary funerals aren't a thing of the past

Even as we move ever further away from the Troubles, military salutes at funerals are revealing sectarian alliances.

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The funeral started like any other. After endless cups of tea, cucumber sandwiches and chats with the parish priest, we shuffled over to the church graveyard.

But as we stood around my great-aunt’s burial site, braced for the Ulster drizzle, masked men in balaclavas appeared brandishing guns. They performed a military salute and shot rifles over the coffin before sprinting off. It was over in minutes – a flash of knitwear and khaki uniforms.

Paramilitary funerals are traditional in Northern Ireland for figures linked to terrorist activity during the Troubles. They often involve military parades and, most controversial of all, guns being fired over the deceased. Such funerals were common during the conflict in Northern Ireland, held for people killed “on active service”. As stable peace was achieved in the 1990s and 2000s, the unusual funerals trickled away and became the stuff of folklore.

Today, as we move ever further away from the Troubles, paramilitary funerals are growing in number. The reason is simple: senior figures from the conflict are dying of old age. The 20- and 30-year-olds who led the movement in the 1960s are now in their seventies and eighties.

In July, two paramilitary funerals took place. One was for Colin “Bap” Lindsay, a 47-year-old senior member of the Ulster Defence Association, who was murdered in Belfast. The UDA, an umbrella loyalist group, has been responsible for hundreds of civilian deaths. At the funeral, mourners wore the insignia of numerous terror groups, as well as spelling out the names UFF (Ulster Freedom Fighters) and UDA in floral wreaths. A guard of honour formed around the cortège as a mourner in a beret led military salutes.

Over the same weekend, a high-profile figure from “the other side” was also buried. Peggy O’Hara was the mother of one of the hunger strikers who starved to death during Margaret Thatcher’s stand-off with republican prisoners in the 1980s. Her funeral, in Derry, was attended by the deputy first minister, Martin McGuinness. About fifty masked men and women in military uniform paraded through the city. It is reported that shots were fired over the coffin at the burial site.

On both occasions, the families defended their actions, saying that they were simply carrying out the dying wishes of their loved ones. The funerals pose a predicament for the authorities. On the one hand, it is not the place of police to arrest mourners on terrorism charges. On the other hand, no civilised society can allow masked men with guns to run around unchecked.

So far, the Police Service of Northern Ireland has been criticised for appearing to stand by and do nothing. Assistant Chief Constable Will Kerr has confessed that the force has yet to develop a standard policy on the legality of paramilitary funerals.

Unsurprisingly, Northern Irish politicians are divided on the matter. Unionists have called on police to arrest republican mourners at the grave but are curiously quiet about loyalist funerals. Many thought McGuinness was endorsing the practice by attending O’Hara’s funeral.

Until the second the gunmen appeared, I had no idea that my elderly relative had had any republican connections at all. This was an unspoken part of our family history the older generations decided not to pass on. Paramilitary funerals are digging up a past Northern Ireland might like to think had been buried with the advent of the peace process. It is another reminder of the many ways in which the Good Friday Agreement answered questions for the immediate future but did little to address the lasting legacy of the conflict. 

Siobhán Fenton is a Belfast-based writer covering gender, politics and Northern Ireland.

This article appears in the 30 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double