The North’s Public Prosecution Service (PPS) is to review its decision not to prosecute 24 Sinn Féin politicians for allegedly breaching Covid-19 rules at the Bobby Storey funeral in Belfast last June.
Director of Public Prosecutions Stephen Herron made the announcement on Wednesday. The bulletin came amid an escalating political row over lack of prosecutions and strong criticism of the rationale advanced by prosecutors for their decision.
The Stormont Assembly is to be recalled from Easter recess on Thursday to debate an SDLP motion of censure against Sinn Féin. And the DUP on Wednesday reiterated its call for the North’s Chief Constable, Simon Byrne, to resign.
The North’s First Minister, Arlene Foster, has said Mr Herron should also consider his position. And she refused to rule out withdrawing DUP representatives from the Policing Board – an oversight body – if Mr Byrne does not quit.
He has said he will not resign, that he stands “behind the actions of the senior officers in the planning of this operation [which was] was entirely consistent with our training and good practice”.
It is understood Mr Herron is not considering his position.
The PPS said it had received several requests for a review, including one from an elected representative on behalf of a member of the public. The review will be carried out by a senior PPS lawyer not involved in taking the original decisions.
Mr Herron said prosecutors recognised “significant sacrifices and compromises have been made by many families in abiding by both the spirit and letter of the coronavirus regulations.
“It is worth emphasising again that the lack of clarity and consistency within the regulations – as outlined in the PPS decision rationale – referred to the specific point in time of this particular funeral, and should not undermine the value the regulations have had overall in protecting public health or their enforceability at other times and in other circumstances.”
On June 30th more than 1,000 people lined the streets of west Belfast for Storey’s funeral, which appeared to breach social-distancing guidelines and coronavirus regulations in force at the time in several respects.
Northern Ireland’s Deputy First Minister and Sinn Féin vice president Michelle O’Neill was among those interviewed by police and was among many senior party figures who attended the funeral. Party leader Mary Lou McDonald, former leader Gerry Adams, the North’s minister for finance Conor Murphy and Pearse Doherty TD were also in attendance.
The PPS announced on Tuesday that having considered the evidence and advice from senior counsel, there was “no reasonable prospect of conviction in respect of any of the reported individuals”.
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.
Foster angerThere was, said the PPS, 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”.
Ms Foster said on Wednesday that confidence in policing in the North has reached an “all time low” because of the failure to prosecute.
She told the BBC of her concern that it had undermined public health messaging and appealed to people “despite everything that has happened . . . to work with me in trying to make sure that we don’t see a resurgence of Covid-19 in Northern Ireland”.
Relations between the DUP and Sinn Féin, said Ms Foster, had been “damaged yet again by the refusal to acknowledge that what they did was wrong” and she wanted to be very clear “it is not the end of the matter”.
Sinn Féin MP for North Belfast John Finucane told the BBC that mistakes were made over Storey’s funeral and said his party’s apology was not a “half apology. We have apologised for the hurt that was caused and hurt isn’t caused unless mistakes were made, so I accept that,” he said.
“Mistakes were made and I think that’s very clear. And I think that there are those who will struggle to accept our apology for that, and I totally understand that.”