Northern Ireland

Leading human rights lawyer raises PSNI surveillance concerns

More than 800 applications for communications data for journalists and lawyers

Solicitor Kevin Winter who represents some of the families speaks to the media after The newly published report by Jon Boutcher on Friday.
Solicitor Kevin Winters

A prominent lawyer has asked a surveillance watchdog to investigate if his firm has been placed under police surveillance.

Kevin Winters spoke out after it emerged that the PSNI made 823 applications for communications data for journalists and lawyers over a 13-year period from 2011-2024.

Mr Winters has been involved in some of the north’s most high-profile Troubles’ linked cases for three decades, including the 1998 Omagh Bombing, which claimed 29 lives, and the 2002 Stormont spy-ring proceedings.

Details of the snooping emerged in the ‘Covert Powers in Relation to Journalists and Lawyers’ report produced by chief constable Jon Boutcher and presented to the Policing Board this week.

In recent months concerns have emerged that PSNI spy operations have targeted members of the media deemed “troublemakers”, with the force accused of trawling phone data of journalists every six months to establish if they had been in contact with police sources.

Details of the scandal came to light through the London-based Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT), which is examining allegations that two investigative journalists, Barry McCaffrey and Trevor Birney, were subjected to unlawful surveillance.

The IPT looks at complaints from people who believe they have been the victim of unlawful covert interference.

It recently emerged a third journalist, RTÉ's Vincent Kearney, may also have been spied on.

Mr Boutcher’s report confirms that between January 2011 and March this year there were 323 applications for communications data relating to journalists who were victims, suspects or witnesses to crime.

The police claim that of that number, ten applications sought to identify a journalistic source using covert powers.

Over the same period there were 500 applications for communications data relating to lawyers who were the victims, suspects or witnesses to crime.

The police use of Covert Human Intelligence Sources (CHIS) - more commonly referred to as informers - was also raised in the report, which confirms “in the reporting period there were four CHIS authorised in respect both journalists or lawyers”.

A spokesman for the Law Society said it has written to the chief constable “seeking an urgent meeting following the publication” of the report.

“The society is seeking urgent clarification in respect of a number of matters disclosed in that report,” the spokesman added.

Mr Winters on Friday said he has filed a complaint with the IPT in London, contacted the Policing Board and asked the PSNI if his legal practice has been the “subject of any RIPA (Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act) authorisations”.

“I have always operated on the basis that a lot of our professional work has been listened to and observed,” he said.

“It’s been a way of life for years here.

“The latest revelations serve to confirm that heightened if unnatural state of awareness.”

Mr Winters said the surveillance could be viewed as part of a wider agenda.

“I see this unnerving evidence of systemic intrusion challenging lawyers and others as the latest outworkings of a campaign of state vilification of the integrity of work undertaken to protect human rights,” he said.

“It’s a depressing reminder that a lot of our work collectively has always been viewed with suspicion and scepticism.”

The leading lawyer said the “easiest way to dispel much of the suspicion around these issues is to have a process of accountability”.

“Anything less than a public inquiry will only fall way short of expectations,” he added.

Earlier this week Mr Boutcher announced a review by Angus McCullough KC into the use of surveillance against journalists, lawyers and non-governmental organisations.