The Northern Ireland assembly has voted unanimously to censure Sinn Féin ministers for attending the funeral of a former leading IRA figure during lockdown.
Assembly members accused Sinn Féin of breaching Covid-19 regulations during a funeral for Bobby Storey that drew a large crowd of mourners in Belfast last June, triggering a political row that has strained the power-sharing executive at Stormont.
The censure, passed unanimously on an oral vote on Thursday, was largely symbolic but kept pressure on Sinn Féin.
The controversy erupted anew this week when the Public Prosecution Service decided not to act against the deputy first minister, Michelle O’Neill, the finance minister, Conor Murphy, or other Sinn Féin members who attended the event. After an outcry the PPS said it would review the decision.
O’Neill and Murphy apologised for causing hurt and undermining public health messaging, but assembly members from across the political spectrum said the apologies did not go far enough and that Sinn Féin had shown arrogance and entitlement.
“Sinn Féin chose to act in a way that breached the regulations on funerals at that time and in so doing happily sent a signal to everyone else in Northern Ireland that it was one rule for them and one rule for the rest of us,” Arlene Foster, the Democratic Unionist party leader and first minister, told the Stormont chamber.
Foster led calls for Simon Byrne, the chief constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), to resign, alleging that his officers turned a blind eye to a premeditated violation of pandemic restrictions.
DUP members who sit on the policing board were expected to reiterate those calls at a meeting later on Thursday. Byrne has defended the policing of the funeral and refused to step down.
The BBC reported that Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary would examine the PSNI’s role in the funeral.
Under rules laid down by the executive, no more than 30 people were allowed to attend funerals last summer. An estimated 2,000 people including Gerry Adams and the Sinn Féin leader, Mary Lou McDonald, attended the funeral of Storey, a former IRA intelligence chief who died of cancer.
Public anger surged when it emerged that council staff at Roselawn cemetery were told to step aside for republican movement stewards, giving the impression that Sinn Féin had made special arrangements to bury one of their own while ordinary families faced strict limits.
O’Neill said she had not intended to upset grieving families. “I wish to again say today, and to put on the public record, that I am truly sorry for the hurt that has been caused to so many families who have lost a loved one,” she said.
The SDLP leader, Nichola Mallon, said Sinn Féin’s claims that funeral rules were not clear last June were an insult to the bereaved. “It wasn’t surrounded in ambiguity, there wasn’t a slight question mark over whether public health advice, guidelines and legislation were broken, please don’t let us hear that today.”