Northern Ireland news

PSNI and Durham chief constables 'must apologise' over Loughinisland documentary arrests

Journalists Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey, with their legal team, leave Castlereagh Police Station in east Belfast after having all the materials and computers seized by the PSNI returned to them. Picture by Alan Lewis

THE chief constables of the PSNI and Durham Constabulary will face pressure at the Policing Board tomorrow to apologise for the seizure of confidential material from two investigative journalists.

The joint police operation was "eviscerated" by judges, leading to calls for PSNI chief George Hamilton and his Durham counterpart Mike Barton to apologise to the reporters and the Loughinisland families.

The Police Service of Northern Ireland had asked Durham Constabulary to investigate an alleged theft of material from the Office of the Police Ombudsman in connection with the award-winning film No Stone Unturned.

The 2017 documentary named suspects it said were involved in the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) killings of six Catholic men gathered in a village pub in Co Down watching the Republic of Ireland play a World Cup football match in 1994.

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Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey had been on bail since their arrest last August over the alleged theft of a document that was used in the documentary.

On Monday three senior judges quashed warrants used by police to seize a wide range of journalistic material in early morning raids on the men's homes and their film company.

Irish News Ian Knox cartoon 5/6/19 

Within hours of the ruling both organisations confirmed that the reporters were no longer under investigation, although they said the wider probe would continue.

The journalists insist the material used in the film came from an anonymous whistleblower, and Mr McCaffrey said they believe the PSNI "misled the court" when officers applied for a search warrant.

"They didn't tell the judge that we had gone to them six months before the film was broadcast."

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Mr McCaffrey said he had still not received an apology from the heads of either organisation for their treatment.

"This cannot be allowed to happen. Somebody has to be held to account. This is not right."

Mr Birney said in addition to demanding the immediate return of their materials, the pair had also asked the court for `remedy' to include "an immediate apology... to the Loughinisland families".

"In a couple of weeks' time they will have to mark the 25th anniversary of that horrendous act on June 18 1994," he said.

"What (PSNI chief constable) George Hamilton should do is apologise to them for the pain that has been inflicted on them by this absolute charade that he's put us through. That's first and foremost the apology that he should give."

Mr Birney claimed it was a "fishing expedition" which the court had "eviscerated" in a damning indictment of the leadership of the PSNI.

Both police forces declined to comment last night on the calls for apologies, but they are likely to face the demand in person when they appear before the Policing Board today.

Two members of the board, Sinn Féin's Gerry Kelly and SDLP representative Dolores Kelly, have publicly demanded they apologise for their actions.

Sinn Féin South Down MP Chris Hazzard also called on the BBC - which was involved in commissioning No Stone Unturned - to screen it to mark the upcoming 25th anniversary of the 1994 Loughinisland massacre.

He said he has written to request a meeting to discuss the issue.

NUJ general secretary Michelle Stanistreet described the police investigation yesterday as "outrageous".

"As the High Court determined last week Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey acted at all times in an appropriate and ethical manner. There was never any justification for their arrest and all of us have been impressed by the determination of our members," she said.

Gerry Carson, chair of the NUJ Irish Executive Council, said the pair are "outstanding journalists who in the words of the Lord Chief Justice were simply following NUJ guidelines by refusing to reveal their sources".

"At last the unwarranted stress placed on our members and their families can be lifted."

In a statement on Monday night, Durham Constabulary’s Chief Constable Mike Barton said his officers acted at all times "in good faith, within the law and followed due process".

"The warrant application was originally submitted to and approved by a county court judge. We do, however, accept and respect the decision of the High Court last week.

“We plan to produce a final report to the Chief Constable of the PSNI outlining all of our findings.”

PSNI Chief Constable George Hamilton said the police investigation into "the horror of what happened in Loughinisland" remains open but is dependent on new information.

“I am aware that the investigation over the last year has caused concern for families who have already suffered so much. That is something none of us would ever have wished to do.

“However, as a police service, the suspected theft or unlawful leaking of any sensitive documents containing information that may endanger life is a serious matter which we are statutorily obliged to investigate."

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