Watchdog report finds ‘no police bias’ in handling of Bobby Storey funeral

Watchdog report finds ‘no police bias’ in handling of Bobby Storey funeral
PSNI Chief Constable Simon Byrne (Liam Burney/PA)

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 Féin politicians who attended the funeral.

A crowd listening to former Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams speak during the funeral of former leading IRA figure Bobby Storey (Liam McBurney/PA)

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 to 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.”

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.

Bobby Storey’s headstone at Milltown Cemetery, west Belfast (Liam McBurney/PA)

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.”

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