Powersharing in the North could collapse if unanswered questions around the Bobby Storey funeral are not addressed, Doug Beattie has warned.
The new Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) 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.
Earlier this week the PSNI was cleared of any major failings related to the funeral in a report that concluded officers did not demonstrate bias.
However, Mr Beattie insisted the probe did not address several key issues.
The Upper Bann MLA said questions remained over communications between Sinn Féin 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.
I have a real concern that it could be a terminal decline over this issue that should have been fixed a long time ago.
“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 Féin 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.
After the meeting on Friday, Mr Beattie said Mr Byrne had insisted that he would not be quitting.
“He’s going nowhere, he made that clear,” he said.
“So we as a party are also clear – if he’s going nowhere, we have to work with him. We’ve always said that we will be a constructive political party, that we will give solutions, not just look for problems.
“So we will be working with the Chief Constable in the months to come to try and fix this and also support the PSNI as they go about what is an incredibly difficult role.”