A controversial decision not to prosecute 24 Sinn Fein politicians for alleged coronavirus breaches at a republican funeral is to be reviewed.
The announcement by the Public Prosecution Service in regard to the Bobby Storey funeral came amid a deepening political row over how the authorities handled last June’s events in west Belfast.
First Minister Arlene Foster has demanded the resignation of PSNI Chief Constable Simon Byrne and also suggested that Director of Public Prosecutions Stephen Herron consider his position. Neither man intends to step down from their roles.
The furore erupted after the Public Prosecution Service (PPS) announced on Tuesday that action would not be taken against the 24 Sinn Fein elected representatives who were among an estimated 2,000 people who gathered for the former IRA leader’s funeral.
The events unfolded at a time when strict limitations on outdoor gatherings were in place and led to claims that Sinn Fein had flouted rules it was responsible for creating at Stormont.
Explaining on Tuesday why any prosecution was likely to fail, Mr Herron cited the repeatedly changing and inconsistent nature of Stormont’s Covid-19 health regulations and the fact that police had engaged with the organisers of the funeral around its planning.
The Northern Ireland Assembly will convene for an emergency sitting on Thursday to discuss the controversy.
Mr Byrne is due to face robust questioning at a private meeting of his oversight body – the NI Policing Board – on the same day. A planned public session of the board has been cancelled due to a clash with the reconvened Assembly sitting.
The PPS said the move to review the decision was in line with procedures and came in response to a number of requests, including one from a public representative on behalf of a member of the public.
The review will be carried out by a senior PPS lawyer who was not involved in the original decision-making process.
“This lawyer will be assisted by obtaining the advice of senior counsel who is independent of the PPS and was also not in any way involved in the original decisions,” a PPS statement said.
Sinn Fein deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill, who was among the 24 considered for prosecution, has reiterated her apology for any damage caused to public health messaging and expressed determination to rebuild public trust.
On Wednesday, Sinn Fein MP John Finucane, who was also one of the 24, acknowledged that mistakes were made in the staging of the funeral.
Mr Finucane insisted the party’s apology was not a “half apology” and said Sinn Fein recognised the wider public mood about the events of June 30.
“We have apologised for the hurt that was caused and hurt isn’t caused unless mistakes were made, so I accept that,” he told BBC Radio Ulster.
“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.”
Northern Ireland’s Health Minister Robin Swann welcomed the review of the PPS decision.
Speaking in Ballymena after receiving his first dose of the coronavirus vaccine, Mr Swann said: “I think that’s the right thing to do.”
He added: “Some laws are very confusing in their nature, it doesn’t give anyone the excuse to not obey them and that’s why our court processes are there.”
Earlier, First Minister Mrs Foster claimed public adherence to ongoing lockdown restrictions was at risk due to damaged confidence in law and order caused by a failure to prosecute the Sinn Fein politicians.
She has been particularly critical of the police for engaging with Sinn Fein organisers of the event, claiming commanders “facilitated” rule-breaking.
The DUP leader has refused to rule out withdrawing her party representatives from the Policing Board if Mr Byrne continues in his job, while she has warned Sinn Fein it would not be business as usual at Stormont.
“Confidence is at an all-time low in policing, not just within unionism,” she told Radio Ulster.
“If people want to ignore that there’s a crisis in policing, if Simon just thinks that he can buckle down and keep this job, continue to do what he’s doing, that of course is a matter for him but he will not have the support of the Democratic Unionist Party in doing that.”
Mrs Foster has called for Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary to probe the police’s handling of the events around the funeral.
The DUP has also written to the PSNI’s complaints watchdog – the Police Ombudsman – to ask it to examine the episode.
The party called for Ms O’Neill to step down in the immediate aftermath of the funeral last summer. DUP junior minister Gordon Lyons insisted that remained the party’s position.
In terms of relations with her Sinn Fein partners-in-government, Mrs Foster said: “I don’t think there’s any doubt that the relationship has been damaged yet again by the refusal of Sinn Fein to acknowledge that what they did was wrong.”
She insisted the PPS decision was “not the end of the matter” and rejected any suggestion things would “carry on as normal”.
On Wednesday, Mr Byrne again made clear he would not be resigning.
He said prior engagement with the organisers of funerals would be “normal practice” for officers.
“Indeed, we would have been criticised had we not spoken to the organisers at an event like this where we assumed there could well be large numbers of people,” he told BBC Radio Ulster’s Stephen Nolan Show.
“The critical thing to remember here is that when you look at the findings from the Director of Public Prosecutions, he is really clear that actually regardless of what we did or didn’t do, which we still stand behind, was the fact that on the day, the law was confusing and inconsistent, and that inhibited his ability to bring a prosecution.”
No further deaths of people who had previously tested positive for Covid-19 in Northern Ireland were reported by the Department of Health on Wednesday.
Another 123 confirmed cases of the virus were recorded.