Prosecutors in the North were right not to pursue legal action against Sinn Féin politicians for allegedly breaching Covid-19 regulations in attending the funeral of veteran republican Bobby Storey, a police watchdog has found.
Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services found there was “no realistic prospect of them being convicted” after an investigation into the police handling of the controversy.
It further concluded that the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) had prioritised public security over enforcement of the public health regulations "without biasing one community over another".
The inspectorate was asked by Stormont’s Department of Justice to investigate the PSNI’s handling of the 2,000-strong gathering at the funeral last June, at a time when strict limits were placed on numbers attending funerals.
The North’s Public Prosecution Service decided in March that it would not press charges against Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill and more than 20 other Sinn Féin figures who attended the funeral.
It cited a lack of clarity over the regulations in place at the time as well as prior communications between Sinn Féin and the PSNI around the planning of the funeral in Belfast.
At the time Northern Ireland First Minister Arlene Foster and other unionist leaders called for the resignation of PSNI Chief Constable Simon Byrne.
Publishing the findings of its report on Monday, the UK's inspector of constabulary Matt Parr said the PSNI "faced the complex challenge of policing a politically sensitive funeral while also trying to interpret the confusing Covid-19 regulations".
“The service took a sensitive approach, and ultimately achieved what it set out to do – prioritising public security over compliance with the regulations,” he said.
However, Mr Parr said the PSNI “have lessons to learn” from its handling of the funeral.
The PSNI should have explained and encouraged compliance with the regulations before the funeral took place “because the service had anticipated that breaches would occur on the day”.
The inspectorate also recommended the PSNI in future “make and retain proper records of conversations with event organisers; and carry out a formal debrief at the end of any policing operations”.
Simon Byrne said the findings would provide assurance to the public as well as lessons for his police service.
“We are committed to impartiality and are pleased that the report concludes that there was no bias in our handling of the funeral, and that the same approach would have been taken if the funeral was held within a different community,” he said.
He added that the pandemic had presented “insurmountable challenges for policing everywhere”.
In its 77-page report, the inspectorate said Sinn Féin politicians played a major role in organising the funeral, with many senior figures attending, and “it is not difficult to see why the reaction from some quarters was one of outrage”.
“For many who had lost loved ones, and been unable to have the funerals they wanted, it must have grated,” the report found.
“And, for others with political rather than personal reasons, it was easy to interpret the funeral as wilfully disregarding the regulations for political ends.”
On the PSNI, it said there were grounds for criticising its approach before, during and after the funeral.
“But we should emphasise that these are not especially serious failings: in any other part of the UK, they would pass without sparking public controversy,” the report states.
“They do not approach the level at which censure of individual officers, or resignations, would be justified.”
The inspectorate found there was nothing to suggest any bias towards one community or another in the way the PSNI dealt with the funeral.
“We have seen nothing to suggest a funeral of a leading figure in the loyalist community wouldn’t have been approached in the same way.”
SDLP MLA Dolores Kelly, a member of the Northern Ireland Policing Board, said the report flags the “invidious and impossible” position police officers were placed in during the funeral.
“As is often the case, those tasked with managing difficult public order situations have become the focal point for political anger,” she said.
“The failures that day, and since, rest entirely with political leaders.”
Ms Kelly also said the “rush to recriminate and call for police resignations was a mistake”.
Mike Nesbitt, policing spokesman for the Ulster Unionist Party, said the PSNI still had questions to answer about the “degree of informality” of its discussions with Sinn Féin ahead of the funeral.
“It is hard not to conclude that once the PSNI secured a verbal assurance there would be no gloves and beret on the coffin or volley of shots. They surrendered control of the streets of west Belfast to the republican movement,” the Strangford MLA said.