The political fallout was also predictable because of the concerns around Covid-19. The whole affair was a storm waiting to happen.
Bobby Storey's reputation in Republican circles was as big as the man himself. From almost the beginning, he was on the frontline risking life and liberty. He proved himself a highly capable and effective IRA volunteer over the decades. Indeed, he was believed to have been instrumental in many of the biggest IRA operations of his era. Hardly surprising then that when he died so many wanted to pay their respects.
Big Bob, as he was known, inspired confidence and loyalty within the ranks of the IRA. Young men looked up to him as a role model. In fact, many wanted to be like him, or simply to gain his seal of approval. His impressive organisational skills and natural intelligence were well known to friend and to foe alike.
For these reasons the British were keen to remove him from the equation at every opportunity. The big man was a thorn in their side on the streets, and so, a prison cell was thought the best place for him. Out of sight, out of mind's eye. How wrong they proved to be on that score.
Bobby spent many years in British jails. Always one to lead, he was not afraid to roll up his sleeves and get stuck in. In IRA parlance, the big man was an operator. As a result of his willingness to engage the enemy in combat, he went to prison on more than one occasion. Each time he was released, he reported straight back to active duty.
It was in the H-Blocks, shortly after the hunger strikes, where I met him. An old school friend of mine had been captured along with him and another volunteer after a shooting attack on British soldiers. A car chase ensued that resulted in three men being arrested and charged with the serious offences. They eventually received lengthy prison sentences.
Some of the most battle hardened men in the jail described Storey's capture as a blow to the IRA in Belfast. And it occurred not long before the phenomenon of the Supergrass that almost destroyed both the IRA and INLA across the north. However, in the midst of all that depression, Bobby scored a massive success from his jail cell. The Brits would soon discover they had failed to take him out of the equation, and that his name would resurface in spectacular fashion.
When I first set eyes on him, I remember thinking that he would have had great difficulty hiding under a bed or behind a wardrobe. He was a big man with a personality to match. His demeanour was pleasant and friendly which made him easy to get along with in cramped conditions. Big Bob was deservedly popular with his peers.
As the Storey unfolded (forgive the pun) he became a bigger headache for the Brits in jail than he was outside it. For only a few years after he arrived in the H-blocks, he played a central role in planning and executing the biggest escape in British penal history. The success of the ingenious plan made the British State look incompetent in the eyes of the world.
Unfortunately, Storey along with several comrades were caught in hiding in a river close to the jail. They were badly beaten by enraged and embarrassed screws and put into isolation. All those recaptured received additional time for their trouble (Larry Marley, the acknowledged brain behind the escape was later murdered by loyalists.)
I got to know Bobby well enough over the years. We were more friendly than friends. Our relationship became problematic with the advent of the peace process. We disagreed on almost every development along the way. I felt that his massive influence was used to sell the leadership strategy to the rank and file. For many, it was a case of, if it was good enough for Big Bob, it was good enough for them too. But all that is history now.
Bobby Storey's headstone testifies to a life lived in struggle for a higher ideal. Who am I to deny him that claim?