Northern Ireland

Police linked to journalist spy scandal tailed individual from Ombudsman’s office

PSNI chief constable to meet Policing Board chair over snooping revelations

The Police Ombudsman's office appealed for witnesses to come forward
Police tailed an individual linked to the Police Ombudsman's Office

Police officers linked to a snooping operation targeting journalists were “physically following” an individual from the Police Ombudsman’s Office, it has been suggested.

Details about the spying scandal have come to light through the London based Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT), which is examining allegations that two investigative journalists were subjected to unlawful surveillance.

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

Former Irish News journalist Barry McCaffrey and documentary filmmaker Trevor Birney made a complaint to the IPT in 2019 over their arrest the previous year in connection with an acclaimed 2017 documentary about the UVF sectarian murder of six Catholic men at the Heights Bar in Loughinisland, Co Down, in June 1994.

Fresh details about the surveillance targeting the two journalists, a family member and a lawyer involved in their case came to light during an IPT hearing this week.

It has now been suggested by one of the journalists at the centre of the controversy that police were tailing a member of the Police Ombudsman’s office.

In an interview this week, Mr McCaffrey told the BBC that in his case “police were physically following an individual from the Police Ombudsman’s Office”.

A spokeswoman for the Police Ombudsman said it “is aware of the issues emerging at the Investigatory Powers Tribunal”.

“However, it would be inappropriate to comment as proceedings are on-going.”

The PSNI was contacted.

Journalists Barry McCaffrey (left) and Trevor Birney (right) leaving the Royal Courts of Justice following a hearing over claims they were secretly monitored by police
Journalists Barry McCaffrey (left) and Trevor Birney (right) speaking to media after leaving the Royal Courts of Justice in London following an Investigatory Powers Tribunal hearing on Wednesday (Victoria Jones/PA)

After the No Stone Unturned documentary was screened the PSNI asked Durham Constabulary to investigate a Police Ombudsman document which appeared in the film.

That force has now disclosed a minute of a 2017 meeting between three officials from Durham Constabulary and two PSNI intelligence officers.

Earlier this week Mr McCaffrey, who was placed under surveillance five times over a ten-year period, said that PSNI intelligence officers present at the meeting confirmed they had a “database” and that they trawled through journalists’ phone records every six months.

The Durham Constabulary document confirms the PSNI ran the names of eight unidentified journalists through their “intelligence system”, returning negative results.

Wednesday’s tribunal hearing was told that attempts were also made to secure international intelligence on Mr McCaffrey in relation to a trip he and Mr Birney took to France in 2016 and that an effort was made by police to access data from Mr Birney’s wife.

It has also come to light that consideration was given to accessing personal data belonging to Mr Birney’s solicitor, Niall Murphy.

Two other journalists, RTÉ's Vincent Kearney and Rodney Edwards, the editor of the Impartial Reporter in Co Fermanagh, may also have been snooped on, it has recently emerged.

PSNI Chief Constable Jon Boutcher speaks during a meeting of the Northern Ireland Policing Board in Belfast
PSNI Chief Constable Jon Boutcher (Liam McBurney/PA)

Meanwhile, Chief Constable Jon Boutcher is set to meet the chair and vice chair of the Policing Board on Wednesday to “recent media commentary around the ongoing Investigatory Powers Tribunal”.

“The Police Service of Northern Ireland will continue to co-operate fully with the IPT and I ask that we wait for that process to conclude before speculating about what might or might not have happened in the past,” he said.

“I have written to various bodies that have expressed concern due to the media reporting to reassure them about how the Police Service of Northern Ireland conducts surveillance.”