Northern Ireland’s First Minister has called for the region’s police chief to quit after prosecutors ruled out action against Sinn Fein leaders who attended a huge republican funeral during the pandemic.
Arlene Foster branded PSNI chief constable Simon Byrne’s position “untenable” after the Public Prosecution Service cited police engagement with the organisers of Bobby Storey’s funeral among reasons why any prosecution would likely fail.
Sinn Fein deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill was among senior party figures who learned on Tuesday that they would not face action for attending the event in west Belfast on June 30.
She reiterated her apology for any damage that had been caused to public health messaging and insisted she was determined to rebuild public trust.
Mr Byrne has vowed not to quit, rejecting claims police facilitated rule breaking or turned a blind eye to the scenes involving more than a thousand mourners lining the streets at a time when strict limitations on funerals were in place.
The funeral of former IRA leader Mr Storey has been one of the most controversial events of the coronavirus pandemic in Northern Ireland, with Sinn Fein accused of undermining rules it was involved in creating at Stormont.
Ms 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.
Mrs Foster also heavily criticised the Director of Public Prosecutions Stephen Herron for citing the repeatedly changing and inconsistent nature of Stormont’s Covid-19 health regulations as another reason why there was not the prospect of successful prosecutions.
The DUP leader said families who had experienced bereavements in the same week and who limited attendance at the funerals of their loved ones did not have an issue understanding the rules.
“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.
In regard to police engagement with organisers, Mrs Foster said the DPP’s rationale was “devastating” for the PSNI.
She claim officers had “facilitated a breach of the law”.
“I think there is a real crisis of confidence in the policing service at this present moment in time,” said the DUP leader.
“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.”
Mrs Foster said the positions of senior commanders involved in the operation were also “untenable”.
She said she would be holding talks with the Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis about the issues.
The First Minister also called for Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary to step in and independently investigate the police’s handling of the events around the funeral.
In a sign of the rapidly deteriorating relations at the heart of the powersharing administration in Belfast, Mrs Foster also accused her partner-in-government Ms O’Neill of “arrogance” and acting in a belief that she was above the law.
The furore triggered by the PPS decision has seen all the other main Stormont parties renew their criticism of Sinn Fein’s actions on the day and the Assembly is to be recalled from its Easter recess to debate an SDLP motion of censure against the party.
Mr Byrne is meanwhile expected to face robust questioning about the episode at a meeting of his oversight body – the NI Policing Board – on Thursday.
Making clear he would not resign, Mr Byrne stood by the actions of his service.
“I stand behind the actions of the senior officers in the planning of this operation,” he said.
“It’s entirely consistent with our training and good practice and indeed, were I to go, it would undermine our future planning at any event like this because we are trained to engage and to encourage people’s behaviour.”
Asked whether he believed the PSNI was being scapegoated, Mr Byrne said: “It’s an easy accusation to make.
“I think it’s a shame that people have lost their judgment so quickly.
“From the outset we tried to police this funeral to the best of our ability.
“When we saw there were breaches, in our view, we started an independent and impartial investigation and we put the evidence before PPS.
“The issue here that has caused so much furore seems to ignore the fact, in the view of the PPS, unequivocally, it was the out workings of confusion around the law that torpedoed this prosecution.”
Ms O’Neill was among 24 interviewed by police over the scenes at the funeral.
Announcing the prosecution decisions, Mr Herron acknowledged “widespread public concern” around events on June 30 2020.
However he said the regulations had become “extremely difficult to navigate”, noting there had been nine different amendments before the funeral took place.
“Prosecutions can only be brought where the available evidence provides a reasonable prospect of proving, beyond reasonable doubt, a breach of the criminal law,” he said.
“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.”
Ms O’Neill said 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,” Ms O’Neill 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.”
On Tuesday, the PPS also announced decisions around alleged regulation breaches at three other funerals, including an intention to prosecute two individuals in connection with the funeral of Francie McNally in Co Tyrone in April 2020.
The PPS said it will also offer a diversionary disposal to one individual reported in connection with attendance outside the home of a recently bereaved family in west Belfast in April 2020, and diversionary disposals to six suspects reported in connection with attendance at a funeral in east Belfast in early June 2020.
Breaches of Covid-19 regulations are summary offences which are punishable by fines.