Simon Byrne letter to Arlene Foster reveals how PSNI policed series of republican funerals and ‘shows of strength’

Chief Constable Simon Byrne wrote to Arlene Foster on February 23 after she had raised concerns about a number of incidents in which republicans faced allegations of lawbreaking.

Saturday, 3rd April 2021, 6:02 am
The PPS directed no prosecutions for anyone attending the funeral of Bobby Storey

In the letter Mr Byrne said that all legislative breaches and criminal offences were investigated “impartially, objectively and effectively”.

He stated that the PSNI’s approach to dealing with potential criminal offences at funerals has “consistently focused on evidence gathering as a means of identifying those involved and progressing investigations post-event”.

The Chief Constable then went on to list police actions following a series of republican funerals and so-called ‘shows of strength’ where there were reports of alleged criminality.

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May 2019: Peter Rooney funeral

Peter Rooney was a member of an IRA unit sent to Gibraltar in 1988 on a bombing mission.

There were media reports of a volley of shots fired by masked men before his funeral in west Belfast.

Simon Byrne said “The investigation commenced following the publication of an article printed in the Irish News, on Tuesday 7 May 2019. The incident is believed to have occurred seven days prior, on 30 April 2019. This intervening period significantly impacted on investigative further investigative lines of enquiry have been identified at this time and the investigation was, therefore, filed on 21 June 2019 pending further information coming to light.”

May 2019: Martin McElkerney funeral

INLA child killer Martin McElkerney’s Requiem Mass took place at St Peter’s Cathedral in west Belfast. A large crowd of men with their faces covered and wearing berets led the funeral procession to the church. Again there were reports of a volley of shots fired before his funeral.

Mr Byrne said: “On 20 May 2019, police patrolling the area of Ross Street, Belfast reported a gathering of approximately 40-60 masked men. Police resources made a tactical withdrawal from the area in favour of observations by Air Support assets. Gun shots were heard in the area a number of hours later. News outlets reported a ‘show of strength’ involving six males with one armed male discharging a volley of shots outside Martin McElkerney’s home address.

“The surrounding area was subsequently searched by police with negative results. A total of four premises searches were conducted under warrant and four arrests were made. Following interview and consideration of available evidence, all detained persons were released unconditionally. CCTV and House to House enquiries were conducted and a number of public appeals for information were made.

“On 23 May 2019, Mr McElkerney’s funeral procession travelled between the home address, St Peter’s Cathedral, Milltown Cemetery and Roselawn Crematorium. A large crowd including some masked persons wearing berets were observed walking alongside the funeral was captured by Police Evidence Gathering Teams and photographs of the procession were widely reported by a number of news outlets.”

He added: “Journalistic material available to the public was reviewed and a written request was made to journalists to provide any additional material held to police. No material was forthcoming. No positive identifications of masked people could be made and no further lines of enquiry were identified.

“Prosecutorial advice was sought from the Public Prosecution Service during the investigation, which stated that only those present at the ‘show of strength’ had committed an offence. Those males have not been identified and as such the matter has been pended subject to any new evidence or information coming in to the enquiry.”

August 2019: Alex Murphy funeral

IRA man Alex Murphy was convicted of killing corporals Derek Wood (24) and David Howes (23) in 1988. The soldiers were shot dead after being dragged from their car, stripped and beaten.

Mr Byrne said: “On 19 August 2019, police were made aware of a video circulating on multiple social media platforms, appearing to show masked persons discharge a volley of shots in a garden where the coffin vigil was being held.

“Enquiries indicate that the shots were fired two days earlier, on 17 August 2019. There was no associated reporting to police. The area where the shots were fired was identified as the rear garden of Mr Murphy’s home. The day after the funeral, Police conducted a search by warrant, under the Terrorism Act 2000, at the family home

“A number of items were seized for examination. Police made follow up enquiries with residents in the surrounding area and conducted CCTV trawls. A request for public information was submitted through media channels. The matter has been pended subject to any new evidence or information coming in to the enquiry.”

April 2020: Francie McNally funeral

Francie McNally was a Sinn Fein councillor in the 1980s.

A PSNI file on its investigation into potential health regulation breaches at his funeral was considered by the PPS. Two men are to be prosecuted.

May 2020: Jim Scullion funeral

Jim Scullion was the former leader of IRA prisoners in the Maze.

Mr Byrne said: “At Mr Scullion’s funeral, approximately 100 persons followed behind the hearse and 30 persons were at the graveside during the interment. Social distancing issues were observed by police during the procession, however, at the time that this funeral took place, social distancing precautions were guidance rather than legally enforceable. The number of people gathered was, on the other hand, in breach of Regulation.

“Air Support assets and an Evidence Gathering Team was deployed. The Evidence Gathering Team was unable to deploy closely enough to obtain footage of the procession and aerial footage was not sufficiently clear to enable identifications. A CCTV trawl was conducted, but no further footage was obtained.”

He added: “The Public Prosecution Service, in considering the evidence submitted, concurred with our assessment that the available footage was insufficient to support an identification. Again the matter has been pended subject to any new evidence or information coming in to the enquiry.”

June 2020: Bobby Storey funeral

The Deputy Chief Constable of Cumbria Constabulary, Mark Webster, was appointed to oversee and direct the investigation of the potential breaches of the Health Protection Regulations at the funeral of the IRA’s former head of intelligence Bobby Storey on 30 June 2020. He recommended prosecution of 24 Sinn Fein members who attended the funeral.

The PPS directed no prosecutions.

August 2020: New IRA ‘show of strength’, Bogside, Londonderry

Media reported on the presence of a gunman in the area of the Bogside. A photograph showed an individual standing, face covered.

My Byrne said: “Additional video footage which was believed to feature gunfire was considered, however, enquiries revealed that the bonfire was lit at this time and that a nearby fireworks display was in progress. Police officers deployed on the City Walls at the time of the incident reported nothing out of the ordinary and community representatives at the bonfire, similarly, did not observe or hear shots. There was no other supporting evidence and no CCTV in the area.

“At present the investigation has been pended subject to any new evidence or information coming in to the enquiry.”

October 2020: Hugh Fitzsimons funeral

Hugh Fitzsimmons was a former IRA blanketman.

Mr Byrne said: “Police had no advanced notice of this funeral and local officers deployed after the cortege had left the home address. Between 100 and 150 mourners were observed by police at the chapel with the gathering in the process of dispersal at this time.

“Evidence gathering resources were deployed to Blaris Cemetery but did not enter the grounds. The location of burial did not facilitate the capture of evidential footage.

“It is estimated there were approximately 40-50 persons present, appearing to be socially distanced. No paramilitary trappings were noted. Due to lack of evidential footage there are no active lines of enquiry and the investigation has been closed.”

January 2021: INLA show of strength, Ballymagroarty

In the early hours of 11 January 2021, a video was placed on Facebook showing a single person dressed in dark clothing, standing in a grassy part of a residential area, pointing a handgun in the air.

Mr Byrne said: The quality of the footage is poor and has not facilitated identification of involved persons. A walkthrough of the area was completed with no items found. At the present time, no persons have been identified, although enquiries remain ongoing.”