Northern Ireland news

Durham Police chief 'stands corrected' about law after search warrants against Loughinisland journalists quashed

Durham's Chief Constable Michael Barton (right) at yesterday's Policing Board meeting which was also attended by journalists Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey. Pictures by Hugh Russell
By Rebecca Black, Press Association

The head of Durham Police has said he "stands corrected" about the law after search warrants against two journalists were quashed.

Chief Constable Mike Barton made the comment while appearing at a meeting of the  Policing Board which examined the arrest of journalists Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey.

Last week the Lord Chief Justice ruled search warrants used by police had been "inappropriate".

This resulted in the criminal probe into the journalists being discontinued.

Mr Birney and Mr McCaffrey, a former Irish News journalist, were arrested last August over the alleged theft of a police watchdog document that appeared in their film No Stone Unturned which examined the RUC's handling of the 1994 Loughinisland Massacre.

The PSNI asked Durham Constabulary to investigate the alleged theft.

Mr Barton says he has changed his mind on the law.

"Journalists do have freedoms – thank goodness – but they shouldn't be abused, you've got to say, I thought the law was in a different place until the Lord Chief Justice corrected me, and I stand corrected," he said.

Chief Const Michael Barton at the policing Board Picture by Hugh Russell.

"I have now changed my mind on what the law is. What's interesting though, we've got to wait until we see the written judgment from the Lord Chief Justice.

"It was a county court judge that decided we could have the warrant."

Sinn Féin MLA and Policing Board member Gerry Kelly asked Mr Barton whether he would apologise to the two journalists.

Mr Barton said: "I apologise unreservedly when we do things that further inflicts distress on families and I apologise unreservedly."

PSNI chief constable George Hamilton said the operational costs to both Durham Constabulary and the PSNI is in the region of £325,000 and set to be higher.

Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey at the policing Board meeting Picture by Hugh Russell.

"Clearly in an age of shrinking budgets, I could have used that on other things but actually this investigation needed to be done," he said.

However, Mr Hamilton stood by his decision to investigate.

"The theft of documents containing information that may, in fact are likely to, endanger life of citizens is a serious matter of which police officers are obliged to investigate.

"We do not have the choice of simply ignoring an issue because it is unpleasant, uncomfortable or too difficult, or will result in bad publicity.

"We must go where the evidence takes us but, in doing so, it is right and proper that we should be, and expect to be, held to account for our actions, and therefore I am grateful for the opportunity to answer the question in public."

Three senior judges in Belfast quashed warrants used by police to seize a wide range of journalistic material from early morning raids on the men's homes and their film company, Fine Point.

Their 2017 documentary No Stone Unturned broke new ground by naming suspects it said were involved in the UVF killings of six Catholic men gathered in a village pub watching the Republic of Ireland play a World Cup football match on TV in 1994.

Members of the Loughinisland families also attended the Policing Board meeting.

Moira Casement, a niece of Barney Green (87), the oldest of the six men killed at the Heights Bar, said the £325,000 spent on investigating the alleged document theft would have been "better spent" on efforts to bring the killers to justice.

"I think that money would have been better spent in investigating the perpetrators of the murder of six innocent men 25 years ago, and the fact that that money was spent to hound journalism and in retrospect to affect us as families, surely to goodness, there is something wrong in the system," she said, speaking outside the meeting.

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