The North's Chief Constable has defended the police's handling of the funeral of former IRA member Bobby Storey after the Public Prosecution Service (PPS) announced it would not prosecute 24 Sinn Féin politicians.
“Despite the public furore, no deals were done,” Chief Constable Simon Byrne said. “We did not turn a blind eye.”
He rejected a call from Northern Ireland’s First Minister Arlene Foster for him to quit, saying that he would not resign.
“I stand behind the actions of the senior officers in the planning of this operation, it was entirely consistent with our training and good practice, and indeed were I to go, it would undermine our future planning of any event like this,” he told reporters at a press conference.
Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill, Sinn Féinparty leader Mary Lou McDonald, former leader Gerry Adams, the North's Finance Minister Conor Murphy and TD Pearse Doherty were among the more than 1,000 people who attended the funeral on June 30th. The PPS announced Tuesday it would not prosecute 24 elected Sinn Féin representatives for alleged breaches of Covid-19 rules at the funeral. Party members from the Republic were not investigated.
Ms Foster said the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) had "assisted in breaking the law" which left the Chief Constable's position "untenable".
Public confidence in policing, she said, “cannot be rebuilt with him in post”. She said public health rules had been “undermined and irreparably damaged” and criticised the rationale offered by the PPS that the changing and inconsistent of the regulations had undermined the prospect of a successful prosecution.
“It’s a nonsense, it’s perverse and, frankly, people are looking at it tonight and saying ‘why did we abide by the rules, when others didn’t?’,” she said.
Ms Foster is expected to speak to the Northern Secretary Brandon Lewis about the issues raised, and the DUP is to explore further independent examination of the events surrounding the funeral.
Assistant Chief Constable Alan Todd said it “was and is the view of the police that more than 30 people on that day in that place was wrong, and it was likely a breach of the health protection regulations.
“That’s not the same question as to whether or not it reaches a threshold for criminal prosecution, that’s a matter for the Public Prosecution Service.
“But actually the police view in dealing with and planning for the day was very much aligned to the public view that this was wrong, it shouldn’t have happened, and those people shouldn’t have been there, they should have been at home.”
The North’s Justice Minister, Naomi Long of the Alliance Party, told the BBC she “very much” had confidence in the Chief Constable and she regretted that others were using him as a “lightning rod for their anger around this issue, anger which I think is completely understandable”.
She said “ I don’t believe that it is the Chief Constable’s fault we find ourselves in this situation”.
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said there must be accountability for senior members of Sinn Féin who undermined the public health message.
Ulster Unionist Party Steve Aiken said there was “now a very distinct perception that there is two-tier policing in Northern Ireland”, and this must be addressed.
Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill on Tuesday apologised again “for the hurt that has been caused to so many, including to Bobby Storey’s own family who have been thrust into the headlines at a time of immense grief” and said had “worked tirelessly to rebuild trust with the public”.
The North’s Public Prosecution Service (PPS) said that having carefully considered the available evidence and advice from senior counsel, it concluded that there was “no reasonable prospect of conviction in respect of any of the reported individuals”.
Outlining the reasons for its decision, prosecutors said their judgment was that each of them would be able to avail of the defence of “reasonable excuse” because of the lack of clarity and coherence around conflicting and changing regulations in force at the time, and because there had been prior engagement with the police in the run up to the funeral.
There was, the PPS said, a “lack of clarity” as to the restrictions which applied on the date of the funeral, and the prior engagement between organisers and the police – and the approach of police on the day – “was capable of reinforcing the perception amongst those who attended the funeral that their conduct fell within the specific terms of the regulations.” For these reasons, the PPS said, the evidential test for prosecution was not met.
The PPS emphasised there was “no evidence that anyone sought, or that police provided, any assurances in relation to potential prosecutions for breaches of the regulations”.
On Tuesday, the PPS also announced decisions regarding files which were submitted to prosecutors in connection with three other funerals.
Two people are to face prosecution in connection with the funeral of former Sinn Féin councillor Francie McNally in April 2020.
The cases of one individual reported in connection with a funeral in west Belfast in April 2020 and six following a funeral in east Belfast in June 2020 will be dealt with by way of discretionary disposal.