An independent agency is to be asked to examine the police handling of the funeral of senior republican Bobby Storey.

The PSNI has been strongly criticised after prosecutors said one of the reasons 24 Sinn Féin members who attended the funeral were not charged with breaches of Covid-19 restrictions, was because of engagement between organisers and police.

Northern Ireland's First Minister and DUP leader Arlene Foster has accused the police of facilitating the breaking of the law and called on PSNI Chief Constable Simon Byrne to resign.

Mr Byrne has rejected that call and insists that his officers acted appropriately.

He met his employers, the Northern Ireland Policing Board, virtually today.

Sources at the meeting said he "came out fighting" and made clear his intention to remain in post.

Afterwards it was announced that the board agreed to ask Stormont Justice Minister Naomi Long to exercise her powers to commission Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary to undertake "a bespoke thematic inspection" into the PSNI's handling of the funeral.

Board chairman Doug Garrett said the review would include the PSNI's operational decision making, application of the law in the context of the Covid-19 Regulations, and review of policy and procedures around police engagement with organisers and consistency of approach.

He added: "This review is being commissioned to provide swift assurance to the board and to the wider community in terms of the policing approach in light of the statement and commentary from the PPS."

Appearing remotely before a meeting of the board, Mr Byrne said he welcomed the prospect of a review by Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary, "as an independent body to come in and help us get an objective understanding of what went on".

Mr Byrne said police understood and sympathised with the hurt, concern and anger felt by many who complied with the Covid regulations over the last year.

"I recognise that the events surrounding the policing of this funeral have caused outrage and have damaged confidence in policing," he told the board.

"I'm listening. But I'm confident that my officers have acted with good intent and integrity managing what was always going to be a sensitive policing operation."

Earlier, a majority of Stormont Assembly members passed an SDLP motion in an oral vote, calling for Sinn Féin to be censured over events at the funeral of Bobby Storey.

The outcome of the debate is non-binding and will have no practical consequences for the party's ministers.

Deputy First Minister, Sinn Féin's Michelle O'Neill, offered a "heartfelt and unreserved apology" to families bereaved in the pandemic for her actions in relation to her attendance at the west Belfast funeral.

She told MLAs she was "truly sorry" for the hurt caused to those who had lost loved ones, but she did not say her attendance was wrong.

Ms O'Neill has apologised to bereaved families on a number of occasions in the months since the funeral last June and has also expressed regret for damage caused to Stormont's public health messaging.

However, her critics have claimed those apologies have fallen short and have not included an admission that she was wrong to attend the funeral when strict limitations on public gatherings were in place.

MLAs returned from recess to debate the SDLP motion criticising the actions of Ms O'Neill and Finance Minister Conor Murphy.

He acknowledged that "hurt has been caused to many families who had to bury their loved ones during this unprecedented health crisis".

Ms O'Neill and Mr Murphy were among 24 Sinn Féin elected representatives who were informed on Tuesday that they would not face action for attending the funeral.

The funeral saw about 2,000 mourners line the streets at a time when strict Covid-19 regulations were in place, prompting claims that Sinn Féin had flouted rules it was involved in creating.

The Public Prosecution Service (PPS) decision not to take action has been heavily criticised by Sinn Féin's political rivals.

Opening the debate, SDLP Infrastructure Minister Nichola Mallon said it was time for the party to make an unequivocal apology.

"The arrogance of Sinn Féin and the refusal to acknowledge, explain and give a full apology brings us here today," she said.

"Enough of the word play, no more diluted, craftily worded apologies.

"I ask the leadership of Sinn Féin - let this be the day that without qualification or equivocation you do offer the people of the north a full explanation."

Nichola Mallon

Addressing the Assembly today, Mrs Foster said: "Sinn Féin calls for equality, respect and integrity but actually demonstrates the opposite."

She accused the party of "clear and premeditated breaches of the Covid regulations" at the funeral.

"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.

"The actions of senior Sinn Féin representatives, the Sinn Féin deputy first minister, their executive minister, Sinn Féin members of the Northern Ireland Policing Board sparked the political crisis.

"The wake, the funeral procession of thousands, the political rally were clear and premeditated breaches of the Covid regulations.

"The prioritisation at Roselawn over other grieving families was hurtful, ignorant and callous in the extreme, acts of arrogance, acts of self entitlement, acts of privilege."

Mrs Foster said that where "clear and premeditated breaches of Covid regulations were made ... there is a rightful expectation of everyone that the police and the justice system shows that they are not above the law".

"What adds insult to injury is that that rightful expectation has been failed," she added.

Additional reporting PA