Doug Beattie: Power-sharing at risk thanks unanswered questions over Bobby Storey funeral

Powersharing in Northern Ireland could collapse if unanswered questions around the Bobby Storey funeral are not addressed, Doug Beattie has warned.

Friday, 21st May 2021, 4:51 pm
Updated Friday, 21st May 2021, 8:24 pm
Press Eye - Belfast - Northern Ireland - 21st May 2021 UUP leader Doug Beattie and party colleague Mike Nesbit meet Chief Constable Simon Byrne at PSNI headquarters, east Belfast. The new party leader discussed a number of thing with he Chief Constable. Picture by Jonathan Porter/PressEye

The new Ulster Unionist leader said the Assembly and Executive could tip into “terminal decline” if all the facts surrounding the event and the police’s handling of it are not fully established.

Mr Beattie said there was a need for a judge-led inquiry to close “gaps in knowledge” about a funeral that saw thousands take to the streets of west Belfast at a time when strict Covid limits on numbers were in force.

He made the comments after an “honest and robust” meeting with PSNI Chief Constable Simon Byrne at police headquarters in Belfast on Friday afternoon.

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Earlier this week Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary cleared the PSNI of any major failings related to the funeral in a report that concluded officers did not demonstrate bias.

However, Mr Beattie insisted the HMIC probe did not address several key issues.

The Upper Bann MLA said questions remained over communications between Sinn Fein Policing Board member Gerry Kelly and the PSNI over the organisation of the funeral and over who provided the security and stewarding.

He said it was vital to establish who was responsible for bringing hundreds of uniformed funeral stewards on to the streets of west Belfast.

Mr Beattie was accompanied by the party’s policing spokesman Mike Nesbitt for the meeting with Mr Byrne.

“We put to him that there’s an opportunity for the Justice Minister (Naomi Long) to be part of this and if she was to instigate a judge-led inquiry – short and sharp – looking at the issues, we could close that circle, answer some of those questions, and start to build confidence back again,” Mr Beattie said.

“Until we do that we are going nowhere. And it’s going to be a relentless drip of information over the next number of months. And while that happens, our Executive and our Assembly will start to fracture and differences will be there and I have a real concern that it could be a terminal decline over this issue that should have been fixed a long time ago.”

Mr Beattie highlighted how the furore over Stormont’s botched Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme had built until it finally triggered the collapse of the institutions in January 2017.

He said he wanted to avoid history repeating itself with the Storey funeral controversy.

“What I’m saying is if there’s anything out there, no matter what it is, that could lead to a separation of trust between the political parties, it could lead to damaging of the Assembly and then could ultimately lead to its collapse,” he said.

“So we want to try and aim that off before it builds up momentum.”

Mr Beattie’s predecessor Steve Aiken had called for Mr Byrne to quit following the PPS decision not to prosecute 24 Sinn Fein politicians who attended the funeral.

The new leader has said he retains concerns about Mr Byrne’s leadership but has offered him an opportunity to rebuild confidence.