Despite Storey funeral fiasco, PSNI may stop ordinary people going for Easter beach walks

After the revelation that police “negotiated” with Sinn Fein before public health advice was flouted at an IRA man’s funeral, the PSNI last night would not rule out attempting to prevent members of the public travelling to walk over Easter.

Thursday, 1st April 2021, 7:01 am
The PSNI – seen here on an almost empty White Rocks beach last Easter – have enforced restrictions vigorously, yet let the Bobby Storey funeral. Photo: Kelvin Boyes/Press Eye.

Amid mounting anger at how not a single person from Sinn Fein present at the vast funeral for Bobby Storey is even to be cautioned let alone prosecuted, police last night gave no indication that they will extend their approach to that event to ordinary members of the public not associated with those in power.

The Assembly will today be recalled to debate the lack of prosecutions over the funeral, with the debate to be presided over by Speaker Alex Maskey, a Sinn Fin veteran who himself broke public health advice by publicising the funeral arrangements for Mr Storey.

Last night the Public Prosecution Service (PPS) said that another prosecutor would review that decision after it received multiple complaints.

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Meanwhile, police have defended their handling of the whole episode, but Health Minister Robin Swann said he was concerned at Chief Constable Simon Byrne referring to “negotiating” with Sinn Fein ahead of the funeral breaches.

Mr Swann said: “I don’t think Covid regulations are something that can be negotiated; I don’t think Covid is something that people can negotiate with.” He appealed for the public to “do the right thing” over Easter by respecting continued restrictions.

The PSNI has repeatedly enforced Covid law which does not exist – while doing nothing to prevent the mass breach of public health rules at the funeral.

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Last April the police forced the mother of an autistic child to turn around and go home while travelling to a suitable place for exercise, while in November the PSNI defended dispersing swimmers on a Co Down beach.

The PSNI has also repeatedly mounted road checks and attempted to prevent the public from travelling to beauty spots on public holidays – despite not having any power under the coronavirus regulations to do so.

When asked by the News Letter yesterday whether, in light of the farcical way in which the Storey funeral had been handled police will this weekend attempt to again stop ordinary members of the public from going to beauty spots, the PSNI said: “It is clear from senior health advisors and senior political leaders that the risks of the current pandemic are not yet behind us.

“Political leaders, supported by senior medical advisors, continue to have health protection legislation in place and we in PSNI will continue our efforts to support the NHS and keep everyone safe.”

Speaking to UTV on Tuesday evening, First Minister Arlene Foster said: “There will be many people who will look at our regulations and will say ‘you know what? I’m not going to abide by those because the deputy First Minister got away with it, so why would I put myself at that level and...actually keep to the regulations?”

However, last night the Health Minister appealed to the public to act responsibly – regardless of how Sinn Féin has behaved.

Speaking on Evening Extra, he said: “What I’d say to the people of Northern Ireland is: Don’t let the political distraction that’s come out over this take away from the public health message...stick with us, stick with the regulations, stick with the health service and stick with the people who have given so much over the past 12 months.

“Please don’t let this be a distraction from doing what we know is the right thing...we’re coming out of this and we’re going in the right direction.”

Mrs Foster also said she was sure that many people who had been fined for covid breaches “will come forward, and they will challenge their fines.

“I have no doubt about that, and as a former lawyer, why wouldn’t they, because they’ve seen a disparity in the law.”

The PPS report on Tuesday which set out the justification for not prosecuting anyone present at the funeral quoted Sinn Féin suspects telling police in interview that they were confused by the “very dynamic and often ambiguous” law their party had passed.

The PPS decision cast doubt on whether the regulations were consistent or clear to the public – something which lockdown critics and others had claimed for some time.

In light of that, and the fact that pandemic restrictions continue to evolve rapidly according to the course of the virus, the News Letter asked the PSNI if it would continue to enforce the law and issue fines, or pause enforcement until there is clarity around the legal position.

The PSNI said: “The Bobby Storey funeral came at a time when the health regulations were rapidly changing (June/July 2020). That is no longer the case.

“The current regulations are subject to four week review, with pre-announcement of any changes, partly in recognition of how this needed to be improved. We don’t believe there is the same uncertainty now as there was then.

“In the interest of protecting public help, we will continue to utilise our four Es approach, of engaging, explaining and encouraging compliance and where and when necessary move to enforcement.”

When asked if, in light of the PPS verdict as to the enforceability of law it described as contradictory, the PSNI would withdraw or review every other prosecution, fine or other enforcement issued under these powers, the police said: “Fixed Penalty Notices (FPNs) are issued to individuals, in effect giving the individual a choice to pay the penalty or contest the matter in court, and on that basis police are not in the position to unilaterally withdraw FPNs.”

Yesterday DUP junior minister Gordon Lyons made clear that the party has no intention of collapsing Stormont over the issue. However, he welcomed the PPS move to review its decision, saying that “the original decision not to prosecute did not make sense to anyone. The Covid regulations were clear and obvious to virtually every single person in NI and there were no issues raised at the time of Bobby Storey’s funeral about either clarity or consistency.”

Meanwhile, the Chief Constable’s appearance at a Policing Board hearing which would normally be in public was yesterday suddenly shifted to a private session where the public and the media will be excluded. Alliance MLA John Blair, who sits on the Policing Board, said that he had written to the board to ask that the hearing be held in public. He said that “there is an important openness and transparency issue here”.

When the Assembly meets today, one MLA will not be there. Last week Speaker Alex Maskey barred TUV leader Jim Allister from the chamber for three days for “unacceptable behaviour” towards him in challenging his authority.

PPS tries to stop others using SF defence

As the PPS last night moved quickly to review a decision which has undermined public confidence in Northern Ireland’s justice system, it sought to curtail the scope for others to use the defence which it says means Sinn Féin cannot be prosecuted.

Sinn Féin members claimed to be confused by the law – something which is not normally a credible legal defence, but a claim which the PPS appears to have taken into consideration when coming to its conclusion.

However, as solicitors began to challenge other decisions by police or the PPS on the same basis, prosecutors attempted to narrow the grounds on which such challenges can be brought.

The move came as First Minister Arlene Foster called on the Director of Public Prosecutions, Stephen Herron, to consider his position, but he made clear that he would not be doing so.

In a statement yesterday the PPS said the “lack of clarity & consistency within the regulations” only existed at “the specific point in time” of the Storey funeral” and “should not undermine the value the regulations have had overall... or their enforceability at other times and in other circumstances.”

That essentially tells most the public that they should not expect to be able to avail of the defence which has been used to stop prosecutions of the 24 Sinn Féin members who police recommended should be brought before a court.

The PPS said that its decision would be independently reviewed by another member of its staff who would take advice from a QC.

That decision could ultimately be appealed to the High Court by means of a judicial review.

The PPS said: “In terms of any request for further clarification of the PPS decision rationale which issued yesterday, we will not be in a position to provide further comment over and above our public statement given that a review of the decisions is to be conducted imminently.”

One of those who had written to the PPS to request a review of the decision was Ulster Unionist MLA Doug Beattie.

He said: “The PPS decision not to prosecute has huge ramifications for those that did adhere faithfully to the regulations.

“There is no doubt in my mind that the original decision did great damage to the confidence in the PPS and the local justice system.

“In any democratic society that purports to operate within the rule of law, the law must apply equally to everyone without exception. Nobody in this society can be off-limits in any investigation.”

Executive’s advice limits funerals to 25 mourners

Ordinary members of the public continue to be told by the Executive that they must not have more than 25 mourners at the funeral of a loved one.

Despite the Public Prosecution Service saying that the law was unenforceable as it was drafted last June when Sinn Fein organised the vast funeral for Bobby Storey, the Executive which Michelle O’Neill jointly leads has not relaxed its restrictions on others.

The Executive website section dealing with funerals states: “Funerals are limited to 25 people. Pre and post-funeral gatherings are not permitted.

“The remains of the deceased may be taken back to private homes, but wakes are not to be held ... A person responsible for organising or operating a funeral or associated event elsewhere must comply with guidance on managing funerals and associated gatherings issued by the Department of Health.”

That advice states that while failure to comply is not a criminal offence (unlike breaking the restrictions law), that it allows “a relevant person” to take action to enforce compliance, including “directing the gathering to disperse”, “directing anyone in the gathering to return home”, “removing any person from the gathering” or “giving a prohibition notice”.

The advice states that wakes are banned, that the coffin can only be carried by those of the same household, and that the funeral arrangements should not be advertised. Every one of those restrictions were broken either prior to or during Mr Storey’s funeral.

Bryson says police knew he was at funeral but picked easy targets

Loyalist Jamie Bryson has said that he was at a funeral in east Belfast which police have said involved an illegal gathering – but that despite going after “soft targets” he was not fined.

Mr Bryson told the News Letter: “I was at the relevant funeral in east Belfast for which the PPS now purport to offer ‘informed warnings’, on pain of prosecution if refused, to six young men from east Belfast.

“I was plainly identifiable, given a PSNI mounted CCTV camera was pointed directly at me and moreover, I engaged with an officer at the scene due to the disproportionate police presence.”

He said there was a “stark” difference between how that funeral in a loyalist area had been policed while police worked to facilitate Mr Storey’s funeral, standing back to allow republicans to run it.

Mr Bryson said that the police officer to whom he spoke “informed me the heavy presence was to ‘investigate social distancing’. I informed him that such a requirement was at the relevant time merely guidance not law and therefore the PSNI had no business investigating any such matters.”

He added: “Of course despite being clearly identified at the funeral, the PSNI did not fancy the fight in terms of seeking to arrive at my door with a Covid fine and the inevitable legal challenge that would have sparked, but rather they took the easy route of targeting six young men – none of who have any criminal record – whom they believed were easy targets.”

A PSNI spokeswoman said: “In this case police identified a number of individuals whom were suspected of breaching the health protection regulations and accordingly they were reported to the Public Prosecution Service.

“Clearly, there are often cases where not all those who were present were positively identified.”

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