Northern Ireland news

Director of Public Prosecutions complains to PSNI chief over Bobby Storey funeral ‘confidentiality' breach

The funeral of republican Bobby Storey attracted around 2,000 mourners. Picture by Mal McCann.
David Young, PA

The Director of Public Prosecutions has complained to the chief constable about a breach of confidentiality over the Bobby Storey funeral case, the Policing Board has heard.

Stephen Herron wrote to Simon Byrne last month outlining a series of concerns about the PSNI’s actions, particularly on the day it was announced that no action would be taken against 24 Sinn Fein politicians for alleged coronavirus breaches.

Mr Herron complained that police made public the fact it had recommended to the PPS that prosecutions should be pursued.

In the letter, the contents of which were outlined during the board meeting by UUP member Mike Nesbitt, Mr Herron said it was established practice that police do not reveal what they recommend in respect of evidence files passed to the PPS.

A political furore erupted on March 30 when the PPS announced that no action would be taken against the Sinn Féin politicians who were among an estimated 2,000 people who gathered for the former IRA leader’s funeral.

In its response on the day, the PSNI made clear it had recommended that the PPS should pursue prosecutions based on the evidence it had gathered.

The PSNI probe was overseen by Cumbria’s Deputy Chief Constable Mark Webster.

Mr Byrne and Mr Herron both faced calls from unionist politicians to consider their positions in the wake of the no prosecution decision.

In the letter, Mr Herron said the PPS had given the PSNI advanced sight of what it was going to say on the day but that police had not reciprocated “despite several requests”.

Reading from the letter, Mr Nesbitt told Mr Byrne: “And the consequence of that was that they (PPS) didn’t have the opportunity to complain and warn against you putting into the public domain the fact that PSNI were seeking prosecutions.

“He said it’s a well-recognised approach, both in this jurisdiction and in England and Wales, that that should be a confidential request and should not be made public.

“He goes on to say the consequence of that is that you undermine the deputy director of the PPS and the spirit of confidentiality.”

Mr Nesbitt quoted Mr Herron as stating that “at no point did the PSNI investigating officers make clear to the prosecutors that you wanted to see prosecutions, either verbally or in writing.

“And in fact you only did it by ticking a certain box on the PSNI Niche system.

“And he goes as far as to say, ‘some might think that you did that because you were only doing it for the optics’.”

In the letter, Mr Herron also told Mr Byrne: “It’s important neither of us does anything that will compromise the integrity of our offices, cause damage to the longer term working relationships between police and prosecutors, or potentially compromise future proceedings.”

Mr Nesbitt said Mr Herron had outlined an ”incredibly serious series of allegations”.

Responding to Mr Nesbitt’s concerns, Mr Byrne said the PSNI felt it had to make its position clear because it was facing claims it had “colluded” with the funeral organisers.

“There was a media briefing by the PPS at 1pm and we were effectively brought in to respond to that because of other commentary by other people very quickly thereafter,” he told the board.

“And that probably caused some of the issues that he is concerned about.

“There wasn’t a deliberate attempt to undermine or seek conflict but, as we still see at the moment, because the decision was, I suppose, momentous and some say controversial we felt we had to quickly explain our position.

“We just felt that given the enormity of what was emerging in front of us we needed to make it plain unequivocally, because we’ve been accused of collusion, that we had recommended prosecution.”

In terms of how the PSNI recommendation to prosecute was conveyed to the PPS, Mr Byrne said it was carried out in the way normal way, by filling in relevant forms.

Mr Byrne was pressed again on the letter in a post-board meeting press conference.

He said the reaction to the PPS press briefing had “brought the integrity of the police service into question”.

“And I felt that, just as the prosecution service’s decision to release a nine page statement was unprecedented, I had to defend the decision making and actions of our officers and actually reflect the fact that when we were charged with collusion, that the senior investigating officer’s view was that there should have been prosecutions for the people that he’d investigated and that was a matter of public interest in public record,” he said.

The Storey funeral took place at a time when strict limitations on outdoor gatherings were in place and led to claims that Sinn Féin had flouted rules it was responsible for creating at Stormont.

Explaining why any prosecution was likely to fail, the PPS cited the repeatedly changing and inconsistent nature of Stormont’s Covid-19 health regulations and the fact that police had engaged with the organisers of the funeral around its planning.

The PPS’s original decision not to prosecute is currently being reviewed.

Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary is examining the police’s handling of the funeral.

All the main unionist parties in Northern Ireland called on Mr Byrne to quit following the PPS decision.

He has resisted their demands.

Today, the chief constable told the media: “I’ve said a number of times that resignation and quitting is easy.

“Over a five year tenure of any chief there’ll be things that come and go that cause scrutiny and controversy and I’m not alone in being a chief constable of this organisation where there’s been previous calls for resignation over different issues.”

Mr Byrne added: “Of course we will await the HMIC’s report with interest, but I’m here to deliver an improvement in policing to communities that we serve.

“We’ll wait and see what the HMIC says, we’ll wait and see if there’s any lessons learned and we’ll wait and see if there’s any personal criticism of the role that I’ve undertaken.”

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