The North's Deputy First Minister faced calls for her resignation from unionist politicians on Thursday as the political fallout continued over the decision not to prosecute 24 Sinn Féin politicians for alleged breaches of Covid-19 restrictions at the funeral of Bobby Storey.
Assembly members were recalled from Easter recess to debate an SDLP motion of censure against Sinn Féin, which was passed by a majority of MLAs in an oral vote following a heated two-hour debate.
However, the outcome of the debate is non-binding, and has no practical consequences.
The DUP, Ulster Unionists, SDLP and Alliance called for a full apology from Michelle O'Neill and her party colleague and finance Minister Conor Murphy. They criticised Sinn Féin for undermining the public health message and the credibility of the political institutions by acting as if the law did not apply to them.
Ms O’Neill said she was “truly sorry for the hurt that has been caused to so many families who have lost a loved one during this time” and that if her actions had “contributed to the grief or the heartache that has been felt and experienced by many people ... that was never, ever my intention.”
Mr Murphy said hurt had been caused to families who had buried their loved ones during the pandemic, “and I apologise for that unreservedly.”
He added that he regretted the “political division this has caused in the Assembly and to public health messaging that we worked so hard to develop as a collective and agreed response to this terrible pandemic.”
However the First Minister Arlene Foster said Sinn Féin "chose to act in a way that breached the regulations on funerals at the time ... [AND]happily sent a signal to everyone in Northern Ireland that it was one rule for them and one rule for the rest of us."
She also accused the PSNI of abdicating its responsibility and having “facilitated” the breaches of the law, and said “much work will be required to rebuild levels of confidence” in the force.
PSNI Chief Constable Simon Byrne faced questions from the oversight body the Policing Board on Thursday over the handling of the policing operation around the funeral.
The Policing Board is to request a review of the operation by Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary [HMIC], which the board's chairman, Doug Garrett, said was to "provide swift assurance to the Board and to the wider community in terms of the policing approach in light of the statement and commentary from the PPS [Public Prosecution Service]."
The PPS announced on Wednesday it would review its decision not to bring prosecutions in connection with Mr Storey's funeral amid strong criticism of the rationale given for their decision and calls from the DUP for its director, Stephen Herron, and the Chief Constable to resign.
On June 30th more than a thousand people lined the streets of west Belfast for the funeral, which appeared to breach social distancing guidelines and coronavirus regulations in force at the time in a number of respects.
Ms O'Neill was among those interviewed by police and was among many senior Sinn Féin figures who attended the funeral, along with party leader Mary Lou McDonald, former leader Gerry Adams, Mr Murphy and Donegal TD Pearse Doherty.
Following a police investigation a file was sent to the PPS, which concluded on Tuesday that there was “no reasonable prospect of conviction in respect of any of the reported individuals”.
Prosecutors said their judgement 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.
Appearing before a public meeting of the Policing Board, Mr Byrne said he recognised the events surrounding the policing of the funeral “have caused outrage and have damaged confidence in policing”. He welcomed the involvement of HMIC “as an independent body to come in and help us get an objective understanding of just what went on.”
Mr Byrne said police had followed their training by engaging with the funeral organisers, and following the PPS’s conclusions “this is what we’re wrestling with now, to what extent could we have forseen that by speaking to the event organiser this would afford that excuse.”
‘Looked like a breach’
He said police were “really clear, this looked like a breach to us ... we began an investigation on that basis where we gathered evidence, we reviewed and assessed it, and gradually as we understood that we brought 24 people to interview with a clear recommendation ... for a prosecution.
“Obviously the PPS are reviewing their decision,” he said, addeding that had police anticipated this outcome “we might have taken an entirely different approach”.
Earlier in the Assembly, SDLP deputy leader Nichola Mallon, who proposed the motion of censure against Sinn Féin, said "those who imposed the rules broke them, and they must be held to account.
"This is no longer about a funeral. It is now an issue of why Sinn Fein believes they are above the restrictions, above the law, above the public health advice," she said.
“Enough of the wordplay. No more diluted, craftily-worded apologies. I ask the leadership of Sinn Féin, let this be the day when without qualification or equivocation you do offer the people of the North a full explanation.”
Alliance MLA Kellie Armstrong was one of a number of Assembly members who described how they had not attended the funerals of loved ones because of the Covid-19 regulations.
Of the large numbers at Mr Storey’s funeral, Ms Armstrong said: “It was wrong. It went against the spirit of the regulations and they and we all know it.
“I don’t want the Sinn Féin leadership to say sorry that I’ve been hurt, or that others have been hurt by their action, I want an apology for their action.
“I want you to say sorry for holding an event that went against the spirit and intention of Covid regulations you demanded we follow.”
Concluding the debate, Ulster Unionist MLA Doug Beattie said Sinn Féin's contribution had been "four minutes in a two-hour debate ... it's just not good enough".
Addressing Ms O’Neill and Mr Murphy, Mr Beattie said: “You have shown no integrity, you have shown no moral courage, you have shown no compassion.
“You have shown no understanding for the very people you’re telling us you represent ... apologise, and then resign.”