First Minister Arlene Foster has claimed the position of PSNI Chief Constable Simon Byrne is “untenable” and called for him to resign over the handling of Bobby Storey’s funeral.
It comes after the Public Prosecution Service examined police evidence files over alleged breaches of coronavirus regulations, but recommended that no prosecutions be brought against any individuals.
The files related to 24 people who attended the funeral in June last year, including several senior members of Sinn Féin – among them deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill.
According to Director of the PPS Stephen Herron, two key reasons would have posed “an insurmountable difficulty if prosecutions went ahead – namely “the lack of clarity and coherence within the regulations and the prior engagement between organisers and police”.
The organisation, attendance, policing and investigation of the Storey funeral raise fundamental questions which require deeper examination if public confidence in the institutions of justice is to be maintained. Everyone must be equal under the law and equally subject to the law.
Mrs Foster says that engagement between the PSNI and funeral organisers is “inexplicable”.
She added: “That the police assisted in breaking the law is fundamental and requires further examination.
“If any senior officer is identified as having approved of or contributed to that decision-making process, then all those senior officers’ positions are untenable.
“The position of the Chief Constable is now untenable and I am calling on him to resign. Sadly, it is now clear confidence cannot be rebuilt with him in post.”
The DUP leader stated that Sinn Féin “have acted as though they were above the law”.
Mrs Foster further said: “To claim ignorance of the law is no defence when you helped legislate those very same regulations.”
She added that she has already spoken with Secretary of State Brandon Lewis and intends to meet with him on the issue.
“For our part, we will be examining all routes for a further independent examination of all the events of 30 June,” Mrs Foster said.
“When what was seen by everyone is not seen by the justice system, the situation has become absurd.
“The role of the PSNI on the day has been a determining factor. This creates a crisis of confidence that goes to the highest levels of the police.
“The public interest has not been served throughout and compliance to our health regulations fundamentally undermined by SF’s and the PSNI’s behaviour from that day to this.”
However, at a press conference on Tuesday afternoon, the Chief Constable said he would not be stepping down despite the calls for him to do so.
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.
Simon Byrne insisted he was standing over the actions taken by police and that it was confusion around the law that ultimately "torpedoed" prosecutions.
“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.”
He added: “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.”
Public confidence is key in any democracy. Rules and the law must apply equally to everyone, or else they might as well not exist.
Ulster Unionist Party leader Steve Aiken has also said there are serious questions for Simon Byrne, after what he claimed was a “regrettable, but not unexpected” decision from the PPS.
“That there is now a very distinct perception that there is two-tier policing in Northern Ireland is a matter that must be addressed,” he said.
“While we realise that the rank and file of the PSNI have been put in a near impossible position, there are very serious questions that must be asked of the leadership of the PSNI.
“Confidence in policing and the PPS has been severely dented, but this should not, in any way, detract from the actions of the leadership of Sinn Féin.”
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.
Meanwhile, responding to the developments regarding the decision not to prosecute, Sinn Féin’s 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.”
She added: “No funeral is more important than any other. No family or community is any more important than any other. All grief is devastating.”
However, SDLP leader Colum Eastwood has said there must still be accountability for Sinn Féin, as those who hold office should be held to higher standards, and that his party will “be exploring the options for accountability through parliamentary processes”.
“In June last year, in the middle of a public health emergency, when people were urged not to gather in large numbers and to make sacrifices to protect our health service, the Sinn Féin leadership decided that the pleas we made to the public did not apply to them,” the Foyle MP said.
“It was a gross breach of faith that undermined the most important public health message in a generation.”
Those who hold high office must observe high standards. That is not what happened in June. There can be no impression that there is one rule for those in government and another for everyone else.
Mr Eastwood added: “The Public Prosecution Service has made a determination about the prospects of conviction. That is for them, based on the evidence available and the advice of senior counsel.
“But we should be clear, a decision not to prosecute is not a determination that no law was broken and it is not a verdict on the actions of those who took part.
“Public rules that were communicated with the weight of law and respected with that burden by so many families and circles of friendship were egregiously breached by people who had a full hand in setting those regulations. That demands accountability.”
Whilst the credibility of some politicians is in tatters, people should continue to follow the advice from respected medical and scientific leaders and realise, if they breach the regulations, they will only end up hurting themselves or their loved ones.
Alliance Party deputy leader Stephen Farry has called for Michelle O’Neill to issue “an unreserved, unambiguous public apology” and said her actions and those of her party undermined health and safety messaging from the NI Executive.
“People are rightly angry at the party over this matter and this will have reopened old wounds,” he said.
“But regardless of that, I would encourage the public to continue to follow the public health guidance as we seek to navigate the Covid-19 pandemic.
“We have come so far and are close to the finishing line.”
In a statement, a Policing Board spokesperson said: “The Board will have an opportunity to discuss and question the Chief Constable on the statement by the Public Prosecution Service on decisions on the Covid funeral files and the PSNI response at its accountability meeting on Thursday 1 April 2021.”