NI Assembly to reconvene to debate fallout from Bobby Storey funeral

David Young, PA
·3-min read

The Stormont Assembly will convene for a recalled sitting later amid the escalating row over a decision not to prosecute Sinn Fein politicians who attended a huge republican funeral during the pandemic.

MLAs are returning from Easter recess to debate an SDLP motion calling for the censure of Sinn Fein deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill and Finance Minister Conor Murphy.

While a majority of MLAs are likely to back the censure motion, its outcome will be non-binding and will have no practical consequences for Ms O’Neill and Mr Murphy.

The two Executive ministers were among 24 Sinn Fein elected representatives who were informed on Tuesday that they would not face action for attending the funeral of former IRA leader Bobby Storey in west Belfast last June.

Bobby Storey funeral
The funeral procession of senior Irish Republican and former leading IRA figure Bobby Storey (Liam McBurney/PA)

The funeral saw around 2,000 mourners line the streets at a time when strict limitations on outdoor gatherings were in place, prompting claims that Sinn Fein had flouted rules it was involved in creating.

The Public Prosecution Service (PPS) decision not to take action has been heavily criticised by Sinn Fein’s political rivals.

First Minister Arlene Foster has demanded the resignation of PSNI Chief Constable Simon Byrne after the PPS pointed to police engagement with the funeral planners as one reason why any prosecution would likely fail.

The DUP leader has also heavily criticised the Director of Public Prosecutions Stephen Herron after he cited the repeatedly changing and inconsistent nature of Stormont’s coronavirus regulations as another reason a prosecution would not succeed.

Mr Byrne, who has insisted he will not step down, is set to face robust questioning from members of his oversight body – the NI Policing Board – in a private meeting on Thursday morning.

A planned public session of the board scheduled for Thursday afternoon was initially cancelled due to the clash with the Assembly sitting, but several political members of the board are pressing for that sitting to go ahead once proceedings at Parliament Buildings conclude.

Coronavirus – Fri May 22, 2020
First Minister Arlene Foster has demanded the resignation of PSNI Chief Constable Simon Byrne (Press Eye/PA)

Stormont ministers also have a scheduled Executive meeting on Thursday.

While that meeting is set to go ahead, it appears unlikely that Mrs Foster and Ms O’Neill will come together afterwards for their weekly joint press conference.

On Wednesday, the PPS announced a review of its non-prosecution decisions for the 24 Sinn Fein politicians.

The PPS said the move 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.

That lawyer will be assisted by advice from an independent senior counsel.

Thursday’s events will play out on a day when Northern Ireland takes its next gradual steps out of lockdown.

Up to six people from no more than two households can now meet outdoors in a private garden.

Ten people, from no more than two households, are able to participate in outdoor sporting activities.

Golf courses can reopen, although clubhouses must remain closed.

Click-and-collect purchases are also now allowed from garden centres and plant nurseries.