Police must address a “dangerous” perception of a two-tier approach to the policing of the funeral of IRA veteran Bobby Storey, Arlene Foster has said.
The North's First Minister questioned the length of time officers were taking to conclude their investigation into alleged coronavirus breaches at the June funeral, which was attended by several senior Sinn Féin figures.
Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill, who has yet to be interviewed by police about her attendance, also expressed frustration that the matter had not been dealt with.
The funeral on June 30th prompted a major political row in the North, with Sinn Féin members accused of ignoring Covid rules by attending an event that saw hundreds line the streets of west Belfast at a time when there were strict limitations in place.
Almost six months on, police have yet to interview Ms O’Neill about the incident.
Liaison between officers and her legal representatives has been ongoing for weeks to set a time and date.
Police are facing mounting questions over the length of time the process is taking, with critics highlighting that fines have been issued immediately for other Covid regulation breaches, such as at Black Lives Matter protests in the summer.
The PA news agency asked both Mrs Foster and Ms O’Neill about the issue on Friday.
“I just think that there’s a need to get it dealt with as quickly as possible,” said Mrs Foster.
“I mean I know that the police will say that there were particular issues around this but, look, I mean 30th of June was when this happened, we’re now coming up into Christmas and there hasn’t been any decisions made in relation to prosecutions.
“I think the public deserves to have clarity in relation to that. And I hope we get it very soon.”
Asked about the perception among some of a two-tier approach to policing, the DUP leader said: “That’s always the problem. If people see police taking action against regulation breakers on one occasion and don’t see it in another occasion, and there are high-profile people involved in that other occasion, then there does become that perception and that’s very difficult and dangerous for policing and I think that needs to be addressed.”
Ms O’Neill said there was a need to bring the matter to a conclusion.
“I am frustrated because it does rumble on,” she said.
“So I look forward to an end being put to it, it being clarified and everything being dealt with.”
An external police commander was commissioned to lead the PSNI probe into the funeral. Cumbria Police deputy chief constable Mark Webster took on the investigation in July.
Police Service of Northern Ireland Assistant Chief Constable Alan Todd, who oversaw the police operation on the day of the funeral, was challenged about the two-tier perception at a press conference on Friday.
“I understand the perception, I am not going to stand here and say I don’t understand the perception because clearly I do,” he replied.
Asked why Ms O’Neill had not been interviewed, he responded: “I am not in charge of the investigation, in due regard to the person who is in charge of it, they are an independent senior officer. Given I was the gold commander for the operation, it would be inappropriate for me to comment on the investigation.”
He was also asked how many fines had been issued to those who attended the funeral.
“That matter remains under investigation, it will be before the courts if that’s the decision of the PPS [Public Prosecution Service],” he replied.
“The whole investigation is currently under way, it is independently led, and I think given that and to give due respect to the process and the place of the Public Prosecution Service and potentially the Courts Service, it would be wrong to comment further at this time.”