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Bobby Storey funeral: O'Neill will not be prosecuted as Foster calls for PSNI chief to resign

The PPS has said it will not bring any charges after considering evidence on 24 people.

O'Neill and Foster pictured last week.
O'Neill and Foster pictured last week.
Image: PA Images

Updated Mar 30th 2021, 5:21 PM

NORTHERN IRELAND’S PUBLIC Prosecution Service has not recommended the prosecution of any individuals for alleged breaches of Covid-19 regulations following the funeral of senior republican Bobby Storey in west Belfast last June. 

Sinn Féin vice president and Stormont deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill was among those interviewed by police over the scenes at Bobby Storey’s funeral in west Belfast in June last year.

O’Neill today apologised for what she said was the hurt caused to families as a result of the incident.

DUP leader Arlene Foster has reacted angrily to the decision, calling the situation “absurd” and calling for PSNI Chief Constable Simon Byrne to resign. Foster said that she telephoned Byrne this afternoon to express that view. 

The Public Prosecution Service had been considering police evidence files on 24 individuals relating to the Storey, including several senior members of Sinn Féin. 

In a statement today, Director of Public Prosecutions Stephen Herron said that the PPS has concluded that it could not prove to the required standard that there were breaches of the regulations. 

In total, the PPS was considering evidence in relation to four funerals and said today that it would be prosecuting two individuals reported in connection with attendance at the funeral on Sinn Fein councillor Francie McNally in Co Tyrone in April 2020.

In relation to the Storey funeral, Herron said that evidential test for prosecution has not been met in relation to any of the individuals. 

Herron said it was “relevant” by the time the funeral took place on 30 June 2020 that Covid-19 regulations had been amended “on nine separate occasions” and as a result “had become extremely difficult to navigate and, in certain respects, inconsistent.”

Herron added that the laws were “changed significantly on the evening before the funeral and further amended two days later”. He said that each of the individuals could avail of a defence of a “reasonable excuse” that they perceived themselves to be in compliance with the regulations.    

“Furthermore, organisers of this particular funeral and police had engaged against the backdrop of evolving regulations in an attempt to ensure that a balance was struck in the funeral arrangements between respecting the sensitivity of the occasion and minimising any risk to both public health and safety,” he said. 

“Prosecutions can only be brought where the available evidence provides a reasonable prospect of proving, beyond reasonable doubt, a breach of the criminal law

As a result of the factors considered we have concluded that the prosecution could not prove any breach of the Regulations to the required standard. Whether considered alone or in combination, the two reasons outlined – that is the lack of clarity and coherence within the Regulations and the prior engagement between organisers and police – would pose an insurmountable difficulty if any of the reported individuals were prosecuted. 

“This is because they could all avail of a defence of reasonable excuse in terms of their actual or reasonably perceived compliance with a complex set of Regulations and/or their reliance on the prior engagement with PSNI.”

The chief prosecutor also outlined that the laws in relation to permissible conduct during the pandemic “is is not always clear cut and this can be challenging when it comes to enforcement of what are essentially health regulations in a criminal justice context. 

featureimage Bobby Storey's funeral procession. Source: Liam McBurney via PA Images

Reaction 

Reacting to the decision, O’Neill said that she has “worked tirelessly” to rebuild trust with the public.

“I wish to say again today that I am sorry 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,” she said.

“Over the past nine months, I have worked tirelessly to rebuild trust with the public and I continue to work every day to navigate us all through this unprecedented crisis.”

I really regret that so many families have had their grief compounded over the course of the last year. I am really sorry that any family had their grief compounded as a result of the outworking of Bobby Storey’s funeral.

“I always regretted that the public health message was in any way diluted. That would never be my intention, to compound hurt or dilute the public health message.”

DUP leader and First Minister Arlene Foster said the position of the PSNI chief constable is “untenable”, and called on him to resign.

“Sadly, it is now clear confidence cannot be rebuilt with him in post,” Foster said in a statement.

I have already spoken with the Secretary of State and with serious questions remaining for Belfast City Council, the PSNI and the Sinn Fein leadership, I intend to meet with him. For our part we will be examining all routes for a further independent examination of all the events of 30 June.

“When what was seen by everyone is not seen by the justice system, the situation has become absurd,” she added.

Speaking to reporters this afternoon, Foster claimed that the PSNI “facilitated a breach of the law”. 

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“I think there is a real crisis of confidence in the policing service at this present moment in time,” she said.

I telephoned the Chief Constable this afternoon. I had a very direct conversation with him and told him that I felt he should resign if he cared about policing, if he cared about confidence in policing across Northern Ireland, then he should resign. I understand that he has said he’s not resigning.

“I regret that because I think his continuing presence as the head of the Police Service of Northern Ireland is having a real impact on confidence in policing here in Northern Ireland.”

Background 

The funeral of the high-profile republican and former IRA leader was one of the most controversial events to occur during the coronavirus pandemic in Northern Ireland.

More than 1,000 people lined the streets for Storey’s funeral procession at a time when strict limits on such events were in place.

The attendance of Sinn Féin leaders at the funeral and a subsequent memorial event at nearby Milltown Cemetery sparked a major political row at Stormont, with the republican party accused of disregarding rules they set for the rest of society.

O’Neill, party president Mary Lou McDonald, former president Gerry Adams, Stormont Finance Minister Conor Murphy, TD Pearse Doherty, Policing Board members Gerry Kelly and Linda Dillon, and MLA Martina Anderson were among senior republicans who attended.

It is understood the police files under consideration by the PPS did not feature individuals resident in the Republic of Ireland.

Storey was not buried at Milltown but was instead cremated at Roselawn Cemetery on the other side of Belfast in a separate event which generated its own controversy.

The Police Service of Northern Ireland commissioned Mark Webster, Deputy Chief Constable of Cumbria Police, to oversee its investigation into the events around the funeral.

Commanders sought external direction as those who attended the funeral included Sinn Fein members of the Policing Board, which is the police’s oversight body.

- With reporting by Rónán Duffy

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