No charges recommended over ‘Covid breaches’ at Bobby Storey funeral

Rebecca Black, Cate McCurry and David Young, PA
·4-min read

No prosecutions have been recommended over alleged breaches of Covid-19 regulations last year at the funeral of senior republican Bobby Storey.

Northern Ireland’s deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill was among 24 interviewed by police over the scenes at the funeral in west Belfast in June.

The Public Prosecution Service (PPS) director of public prosecutions Stephen Herron said he acknowledged “widespread public concern” around events on June 30, 2020.

However he said the regulations had become “extremely difficult to navigate” with 10 different amendments.

“Prosecutions can only be brought where the available evidence provides a reasonable prospect of proving, beyond reasonable doubt, a breach of the criminal law,” he said.

“As a result of the factors considered we have concluded that the prosecution could not prove any breach of the regulations to the required standard.”

Ms O’Neill said she has “worked tirelessly” to rebuild trust with the public.

“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,” Ms O’Neill said.

Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald, former party leader Gerry Adams, and deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill attending the funeral
Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald, former party leader Gerry Adams, and deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill attending the funeral (Liam McBurney/PA)

“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.”

Speaking outside Stormont, Ms O’Neill added: “I really regret that so many families have had their grief compounded over the course of the last year.

“I am really sorry that any family had their grief compounded as a result of the outworking of Bobby Storey’s funeral.

“I always regretted that the public health message was in any way diluted. That would never be my intention, to compound hurt or dilute the public health message.

“There is no doubt that during this pandemic we have seen laws and legislation at break-neck speed and there will be plenty of time for reflection on all of that.

“If you take a period of three months, the regulations on funerals changed eight or nine times. So you can see the complexity of the situation we are dealing with.”

Deputy First Minster Michelle O’Neill during a press conference at Stormont
Deputy First Minster Michelle O’Neill during a press conference at Stormont (Liam McBurney/PA)

DUP leader Arlene Foster said the position of the PSNI chief constable is “untenable”, and called on him to resign.

“Sadly, it is now clear confidence cannot be rebuilt with him in post,” Mrs Foster said in a statement.

“I have already spoken with the Secretary of State and with serious questions remaining for Belfast City Council, the PSNI and the Sinn Fein leadership, I intend to meet with him.

“For our part we will be examining all routes for a further independent examination of all the events of 30 June.

“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 Sinn Fein’s and the PSNI’s behaviour from that day to this.”

The PPS also announced decisions around three other funerals, including an intention to prosecute two individuals in connection with the funeral of Francie McNally in Co Tyrone in April 2020.

The PPS said it will offer a diversionary disposal to one individual reported in connection with attendance outside the home of a recently bereaved family in west Belfast in April 2020, and diversionary disposals to six suspects reported in connection with attendance at a funeral in east Belfast in early June 2020.

Breaches of Covid-19 regulations are summary offences which are punishable by fines.

The funeral of former IRA leader Mr Storey has been one of the most controversial events of the coronavirus pandemic in Northern Ireland.

More than 1,000 people lined the streets for the funeral procession at a time when strict limits on such events were in place.

The attendance of Sinn Fein leaders at the funeral and a subsequent memorial event at nearby Milltown Cemetery sparked a major political row at Stormont, with the republican party accused of disregarding rules they set for the rest of society.

Ms O’Neill, party president Mary Lou McDonald, former president Gerry Adams, Stormont Finance Minister Conor Murphy, TD Pearse Doherty, Policing Board members Gerry Kelly and Linda Dillon, and MLA Martina Anderson were among senior republicans who attended.

A crowd at the funeral
A crowd at the funeral (Liam McBurney/PA)

It is understood the police files considered by the PPS did not feature individuals resident in the Irish Republic.

Mr Storey was not buried at Milltown but was instead cremated at Roselawn Cemetery on the other side of Belfast in a separate event which generated its own controversy.

The Police Service of Northern Ireland commissioned Mark Webster, Deputy Chief Constable of Cumbria Police, to oversee its investigation into the events around the funeral.

Commanders sought external direction as those who attended the funeral included Sinn Fein members of the Policing Board, which is the police’s oversight body.