Controversy as PPS announces no prosecutions over ‘Covid breaches’ at funerals
The Public Prosecution Service (PPS) has informed the Police Service of its decisions relating to four funerals, including that of Bobby Storey on 30 June 2020.
With regard to the case of the Bobby Storey funeral, the PPS has decided that the evidence, as presented, does not pass the first stage of its prosecutorial test as it is unlikely to result in a conviction.
Commenting on today’s announcement Chief Constable Simon Byrne said:
“The Police Service acknowledges the very significant levels of public interest in this particular case. We understand the immense sacrifices made by people during this pandemic. Enforcing the Coronavirus Regulations has been a consistently challenging and often uncomfortable role for my officers as the Regulations have, by their very nature, involved restricting the rights of the public, but we recognise the requirement to do so in our common interest. We will continue to support the response to this health emergency by promoting adherence to the Regulations."
Mr Byrne continued:
“Given some of the funeral participants were members of our accountability body and our employer, and the significant public concerns about the role of police, I asked Deputy Chief Constable Mark Webster of Cumbria Constabulary to lead the investigation into the funeral. DCC Webster and a team of investigators reported 24 individuals to the PPS, recommending prosecution. The investigation moved as quickly as the evidential procedures and legal representations would allow in accordance with the procedural framework and due process. I want to place on record my thanks to Chief Constable Skeer for her support in releasing DCC Webster to this task."
Mr Byrne added:
“The PPS decision points to the ambiguity and changing nature of the Coronavirus Regulations in force immediately before and on the day of the funeral which, in their view alone, amounted to an insurmountable hurdle to a successful prosecution. There were nine changes to the Coronavirus Regulations up to this stage of the pandemic which, in the words of the Director of Public Prosecutions himself, ‘had become extremely difficult to navigate and, in certain respects, inconsistent’.
“The decision also addresses the role of the police in our engagement with the organisers. We did engage with the organisers. This was to fulfil our key responsibility to manage public safety. This approach was in line with our tried and tested approach to any major public event and is fully in keeping with UK police guidance. We did not enter into any agreements with the organisers as to their liabilities. We did not make the organisers any promises in terms of the Regulations.
“Police Commanders did inform the organisers of the need to stay within the Regulations and again reminded the stewards of this on the day of the funeral. We welcome that the PPS concluded that there was no evidence to the contrary.
“This is further illustrated by the fact that we reported 24 people to the PPS with a recommendation for prosecution. We note the PPS commentary that our engagement could have afforded suspects a reasonable excuse. However, it is also clear from what the PPS have said that the prosecution decision outcome would not have been different even if our approach to engagement had been."
Chief Constable Simon Byrne concluded:
“The decision not to prosecute does not change our view that what happened last summer when large numbers of people chose not to ‘stay at home’ at the height of a global pandemic was unnecessary, irresponsible and insensitive. It was wrong.”
Responding to today's statement by the Public Prosecution Service on the funeral of Bobby Storey Sinn Fein Leas Uachtaran Michelle O'Neill said:
"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.
"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."
Michelle O'Neill said:
"Nine months ago I laid my dear friend Bobby Storey to rest. I accept and understand that many people, particularly those who had lost loved ones during the last year, felt that by my actions, I gave the impression that the rules did not apply to us all equally. Let me say clearly they do.
"No funeral is more important than any other. No family or community is any more important than any other. All grief is devastating.
"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. We wanted only to support Bobby's family as he was laid to rest.
"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.”
TUV Leader Jim Allister called the outcome from the PPS a ‘perverse decision showing fear and favour.’
Mr Allister issued a statement saying:
“This is a perverse decision showing fear and favour. Fear of offending republicans and favour towards the Sinn Fein leadership. Once more Sinn Fein is proved to be above the law, even the law they made themselves. Clearly Sinn Fein, not the PSNI, rules Northern Ireland.
“The investigative delays, mishandling and apparent collusion of the PSNI in facilitating this IRA/Sinn Fein show of strength, compounded by the resulting PPS decision, in any normal society would make the Chief Constable’s position untenable. He should go!
“It makes a mockery of the COVID-19 regulations and seriously undermines public confidence in the justice system. A few days ago I wrote to the Chief Constable after complaints that members of the public were turned away by officers while going for a walk on the beach and another who was prevented from visiting his family caravan. In both cases, people were threatened with fines if they continued on their journey. We have had another case of a church service resulting in police officers turning up. Yet today we discover that the blatant breaching of the regulations by thousands of people in full view of TV cameras is to result in no action.
“The public health message is holed below the waterline. Why? Because a message has been sent out today that the law simply does not apply to some.
“Confidence in the rule of law, in the PPS and the PSNI has been shattered. We need complete transparency on what was agreed between the organisers and the police and why. Why did it take months to interview O’Neill and others while ordinary members of the public could be issued with enforcement notices on the spot?
“Once again a message has been sent that Republicans can do whatever they want. There is one rule for them and another for everyone else.
“Let’s nail the propaganda that this was just a case of breaching guidance and not regulations. Regulation 5(2)(g), which was in full operation at the time of the Storey funeral, was abundantly clear: you could not attend the funerals of your friends.
“I had many messages from members of the public lamenting the fact that they observed this when it came to the funerals of their loved ones - yet there was an exception made for a convicted IRA terrorist.
“The DUP needs to respond with vigour, not join in sweeping this scandal under the carpet that lies below the joint desk that Arlene Foster shares with Michelle O’Neill. Sinn Fein are only in government as long as they are sustained in office with Unionist support. What is the point in maintaining a system which, as today’s decision so clearly demonstrates, only exists as long as Republicans are protected from the equal application of the rule of law? We saw that with murders like those of Paul Quinn and Kevin McGuigan. We saw that with the OTR letters scandal. Now we see that even in death Republicans get away with breaking the law - at least in this life.
“What’s the point of sustaining this absolute sham?”