A watchdog report into the PSNI handling of the funeral of senior republican Bobby Storey has found that police prioritised public security over enforcement of Covid-19 regulations without showing bias.
Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services (HMICFRS) said it understood why the PSNI took this approach, given the likelihood of tensions, and because regulations were confusing.
The funeral saw about 2,000 mourners line the streets in west Belfast last June for Bobby Storey’s funeral at a time when strict Covid-19 regulations were in place.
A review was launched after it was announced prosecutions could not be brought against 24 Sinn Fein politicians who attended the funeral.
(The report cleared the PSNI of any bias in their handling of the Bobby Storey funeral in June)
The inspectorate said the PSNI should have explained and encouraged compliance with regulations before the funeral took place because the service had anticipated that breaches would occur on the day.
HMICFRS also found the PSNI took a consistent approach when investigating alleged breaches at similar funerals or events and concluded that much of the public criticism of the PSNI following the funeral was unwarranted.
Her Majesty’s Inspector of Constabulary Matt Parr said: “The PSNI faced the complex challenge of policing a politically-sensitive funeral while also trying to interpret the confusing Covid-19 regulations.
“The service took a sensitive approach, and ultimately achieved what it set out to do – prioritising public security over compliance with the regulations.
“Due to the complex and frequently changing Covid-19 regulations, we are not confident that there was enough evidence to prove to a court that any of the attendees at Bobby Storey’s funeral had knowingly committed an offence – and we, therefore, agree with the decision not to prosecute.
“I am reassured that the PSNI showed no bias in its handling of the funeral and that the service would have taken the same approach if the funeral was held in a different community. The PSNI does however have lessons to learn from its handling of the funeral, and we have therefore made several recommendations to help it improve how it polices events in the future.”
(Thousands of people in west Belfast lined the route of the funeral procession)
HMICFRS has recommended that the PSNI should broadly communicate the 4Es approach – engage, explain, encourage and enforce – whenever breaches of the Covid-19 Regulations are anticipated at events.
It has also recommended that the PSNI should make and retain proper records of conversations with event organisers, and carry out a formal debrief at the end of any policing operations.
PSNI Chief Constable Simon Byrne welcomed the findings of the report.
He said: “The global pandemic has presented insurmountable challenges for policing everywhere. In the context of new and rapidly changing legislation, we have always sought, with the best of intentions, to support our colleagues working in the health sector to protect the community by preventing the spread of the Covid-19 virus.
“We welcome the findings of today’s HMICFRS inspection report, both in terms of the assurance it provides to the public, and the learning it identifies for the Police Service.
“We are committed to impartiality and are pleased that the report concludes that there was no bias in our handling of the funeral, and that the same approach would have been taken if the funeral was held within a different community. Furthermore, the HMICFRS report supports the principle of early engagement recommending that this practice continues.
“We are listening and are determined to work with the entire community to enhance confidence in policing as an impartial and even-handed service working hard to protect our citizens.”
(The PSNI decided to put security ahead of compliance with Covid-19 regulations)
Speaking about the Inspection Report published, Board Chair Doug Garrett said:
“This is a significant inspection which provides independent examination and explanation around the policing approach. It was necessary to provide assurance on areas of concern raised by Board Members and respond to wider policing confidence issues.
The Board has initially questioned the Chief Constable on the Report’s findings and the specific lessons to be learned from this review for the future. Members have asked the Chief Constable to provide a formal written response to the Inspection and the implementation of recommendations made. Further discussion will then be held with the Chief Constable so that the detail of the Inspection and analysis included can be given full consideration.
As with the Board’s own review of policing of Covid-19, the understanding of the Regulations and accompanying guidelines available at the time of this funeral is the subject of detailed commentary highlighting the challenges faced by policing in delivery.
On behalf of the Board, I would like to record thanks to HMI Parr and his inspection team for conducting this review so promptly.”