Northern Ireland news

PSNI Chief Constable Simon Byrne apologises unreservedly to Loughinisland journalists for 'distress and upset' of wrongful searches

Trevor Birney (left) and fellow journalist Barry McCaffrey at an earlier court hearing. Picture by Hugh Russell

The PSNI Chief Constable has apologised to Loughinisland journalists Barry McCaffrey and Trevor Birney "for the distress and upset caused by the execution of search warrants" which the Court of Appeal ruled had been wrongly obtained.

Chief Constable Simon Byrne today offered "an unreserved apology" to the investigative journalists and their families and said he accepted the ruling of the Lord Chief Justice that the search warrants were unlawful.

The journalists were arrested and their properties searched on August 31 2018 over the alleged theft of a police ombudsman document that appeared in their Emmy nominated documentary No Stone Unturned about the loyalist massacre of six men in a Loughinisland bar in 1994. 

A panel of judges last week ruled that the hearing to obtain the warrants had fallen "woefully short" of the standard required to ensure it was fair, in a judgement that was seen as a victory for press freedom. The criminal investigation into the journalists was dropped last year. No-one has evern been prosecuted for the murder of the men who had gathered in a rural Co Down pub to watch a World Cup football match.

Six men were murdered at Loughinisland

Today PSNI Chief Constable Simon Byrne offered "an unreserved apology" to the men and their families "for the distress and upset caused by the execution of search warrants at your home and business premises on 31 August 2018".

"While the searches were planned and conducted at the direction of officers from Durham Constabulary, those officers were acting on behalf of the Police Service of Northern Ireland in an external capacity and I fully accept the ruling of the Lord Chief Justice that the search warrants were unlawful.

"I can assure you that the Police Service of Northern Ireland will be reviewing all of the findings of the judgement to ensure that all appropriate learning is taken."

The raids were carried out by detectives from Durham Constabulary, supported by PSNI officers, and they seized computer equipment, files, phones, cameras and notebooks as well as copying information from a server.

All the confiscated material has been returned but backed-up copies have been retained by the PSNI.

The PSNI and the journalists' legal teams are to enter into meditation over the deletion of the material.

The chief constable added: "I have already notified your legal representatives that I am keen to resolve all outstanding matters through a process of meditation in order to bring this matter to a conclusion."

Read more: Police wrongly obtained warrants to search Loughinisland journalists' homes and offices, High Court rules

Both journalists welcomed the apology but were critical of the police response to their No Stone Unturned documentary.

Barry McCaffrey said while he welcomed the chief constable's words "it's unfortunate that it has taken the PSNI 685 days to do the right thing and finally apologise since they raided our homes at 7am on August 31 2018". 

He questioned who would be held accountable and said the PSNI must focus its efforts on catching the gunmen who shot six men dead in the Heights Bar in Loughinisland.

"The chief constable says the PSNI will look at what lessons need to be learned. I sincerely hope it does. I think it's obvious that this was a lesson on how not to do policing in a democratic society. This was a deliberate and direct attack on press freedom. 

"On the morning of our arrest the police publicly accused us of having put peoples' lives at risk. This was an outrageous slur on our personal and professional reputations. The Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan made it clear in his judgement that this was completely untrue and without foundation. We have had to live for the last two years with that highly damaging slur hanging over our heads. Who in the PSNI is going to be held to account?

"The court found that there was indeed unlawful and illegal actions in this case, but it wasn't by Trevor Birney or myself. It was by the PSNI and Durham Constabulary."

He added: "Who is going to be held to account for the hundreds of thousands of pounds that was wasted in this case? "

Referring to the material still retained by the PSNI, Mr McCaffrey said: "Unfortunately, even though the court found that the PSNI unlawfully obtained our personal data, they still refuse to delete the confidential material belonging to us which they still retain.

"They say they want to hold on to this material, even though it was obtained illegally, for 10 years. Why is that?

"This isn't North Korea, this is supposed to be the north of Ireland 2020. What rights and protections does an individual have if the PSNI is allowed to retain unlawfully obtained material for a decade?

"While I welcome the chief constable's apology I feel this sorry chapter in bad policing can not be properly resolved until this issue of data protection is dealt with fully.

"The police had a job to do, to catch the Loughinisland killers, today I hope they now finally get around to doing this."

Trevor Birney described the apology as "an important first step in redressing the unlawful nature of the police actions" but said it needed "to be seen in context".

"The fact is that the PSNI has fought our judicial review tooth and nail.

"At every stage they have vigorously defended their actions of August 31 2018. Indeed, they attempted to smear our reputations in court. On the day of our arrest they issued a press release saying we had put lives at risk. In his judgement the Lord Chief Justice said the PSNI had never even conducted a risk assessment after we advised them in April 2016 that we were considering naming the chief suspects in the Loughinisland massacre.

"The proper response to No Stone Unturned would have been a police investigation into the attack at The Heights bar. Instead, the PSNI came after the journalists. Those that made that immoral and unlawful decision should be held accountable."

Read more: Police wrongly obtained warrants to search Loughinisland journalists' homes and offices, High Court rules

Investigative journalists Trevor Birney (left), and Barry McCaffrey outside Castlereagh Police Station in Belfast, with a haul of journalistic material unlawfully seized by police following the making of the Loughinisland documentary No Stone Unturned 

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