An attempt by unionists to weaponise Covid-19 regulations to demand prosecutions of leading members of Sinn Féin over the funeral last June of party colleague and IRA veteran Bobby Storey appear to have failed.
In its announcement on Wednesday, the Public Prosecution Service (PPS) said it had considered all the available evidence and concluded there was no reasonable basis for issuing fines.
Nine months on, the funeral has retained the power to polarise communities in the North, while the grieving friends and family of Mr Storey remain excluded from the mainstream media narrative.
The scale of the turnout last June for one of the most celebrated Provisional IRA figures in Belfast outraged unionists, who insisted regulations must have been broken by Sinn Féin.
Sinn Féin’s Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill was among the 24 party members who were interviewed by the PSNI and whose prosecution had reportedly been considered.
Several leading SF figures including Gerry Adams and Mary Lou McDonald were among the official mourners at the funeral, which saw up to two thousand members of the public turn out to pay their respects as the coffin passed. Sinn Féin members also lined the streets in a socially distanced manner to form an honour guard for the small cortege.
After unionists were whipped into outrage by the loyalist media, led by the BBC talk show host Stephen Nolan and Ben Lowry of the Newsletter newspaper, the funeral became a sectarian rallying call and a dangerous political weapon.
This remained the case despite other high-profile funerals being openly allowed to proceed, with large crowds in attendance and without complaint.
But there was no surprise when prosecutors finally admitted on Wednesday there was no basis to bring charges, or at the the outrage which erupted in response.
The PPS said simply that the evidential test for prosecution was not met as the regulations, which were changing almost daily at the time, were “unclear and inconsistent”. It also emerged that in the week leading up to the funeral that there had been a series of engagements between Sinn Féin and senior PSNI, who received and approved the funeral plans days before it took place, and that there was general compliance on the day.
It was also accepted by the PPS that significant efforts had been made by the organisers to ensure that social distancing was maintained, and measures put in place minimise the risk of transmission of the virus had been followed by those accused.
Despite this, there was no sign of an apology from the anti-republican media to those they falsely accused, or to the west Belfast community whose mourning was vilified in the process.
However, Sinn Féin did not emerge from the controversy unscathed. The involvement of the PSNI in approving their funeral plan polarised republicans, with many infuriated by the evidence of a ‘special deal’ between the party and the forces of the Crown.
Saoradh accused Sinn Féin of double standards over its failure to oppose PSNI harassment of several events involving nationalists without a direct connection to the party.
This included a violent PSNI attack on a funeral in February, as well as the abuse this week of a street protest in the campaign for justice for 14-year-old Noah Donohoe.
“Republicans have been targeted and singled out for attending numerous social distanced events ranging from BLM protests to expressing support for Republican Prisoners,” they said.
“All events came under the watchful eyes of the Crown Forces, while they attempted to harass and intimidate those in attendance.”
They also noted the PSNI’s actions in allowing hundreds of loyalists to gather for various events “where no one was charged, fined or even detained”.
“This exposes the fact that the PPS and Crown Forces share a cosy relationship with establishment parties and former Republicans within Sinn Féin, while they continue to target genuine Republicans.”
Concern over Covid double standards also increased after it emerged that two senior republicans, both of whom have parted ways from Sinn Féin, are to be charged in connection with the funeral of a former Sinn Féin councillor last April.
Brian Arthurs and Frankie Quinn, both former political prisoners, learned this week they are to be prosecuted in relation to their attendance at the funeral of Ballinderry man Francie McNally last April.
The decision was released by the PPS alongside their verdict on the Bobby Story funeral, and appeared timed to appease unionists while further dividing republicans. Lawyers for the two men say they will “vehemently challenge” the decision.
In a statement, Mid Ulster councillors Barry Monteith and Dan Kerr questioned why the two veteran republicans were being targeted.
“We want to be clear - we are not condoning and we do not support any witch hunt for others to be prosecuted for attending funerals,” they added.
“People have the right to remember their dead and should not be prosecuted for doing so.
“However, the question must be asked. Why was this funeral and these two Republicans selected for prosecutions? The motivation behind this is politics, not public health.”