Northern Ireland news

English police investigator criticises north's most senior judge in Loughinisland case

Darren Ellis of Durham Constabulary pictured leaving Belfast's High Court earlier this year. Picture by Liam McBurney/PA Wire
Connla Young

An English police investigator who probed the alleged theft of confidential documents used in a film about the Loughinisland atrocity criticised the north's top judge in an email former PSNI chief constable Sir George Hamilton described as "deepy concerning".

Darren Ellis of Durham Constabulary criticised Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan after a hearing in June in connection with the arrests of Barry McCaffrey and Trevor Birnie.

Weeks earlier he was among senior judges who ruled that authorisation for search warrants obtained to carry out raids on their homes and offices had been inappropriate.

Durham Constabulary had been asked by the PSNI to investigate the alleged theft of confidential Police Ombudsman documents used in the film No Stone Unturned about the murders of six Catholic men as they watched a World Cup match at the Heights Bar in Loughinisland, Co down in 1994.

Mr Ellis was a senior investigating officer.

The journalists were arrested during raids in August 2018 in which huge volumes of material was seized as part of 'Operation Yurta'.

Read More: Probe into Loughinisland film documents has cost PSNI £247,000

Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey

Mr Birney’s solicitor, Niall Murphy of KRW Law, last night said that during a hearing on June 24 this year, the Lord Chief Justice issued an order for the PSNI to continue to observe undertakings not to review material seized during the investigation.

The material relates to information obtained during the raids and later stored on PSNI servers.

Later that day Mr Ellis sent emails to a PSNI official and temporary Assistant Chief Constable Barbara Gray.

In his correspondence to the official, which was also copied to members of the legal profession, he launched an attack on both the court ruling and Sir Declan.

“I think the situation is an absolute outrage,” he said.

Former Durham Constabulary chief constable Mike Barton (left) and ex PSNI chief George Hamilton

“The general judicial oversight and management of this case, including the ‘performance’ of the LCJ himself, beggars belief.”

He also said he intended to contact the now retired Chief Constable of Durham Constabulary Mike Barton.

“I would sense he would like to take advices (sic) from the Home Office given the national implication of what I personally consider to be the most perverse judicial decision I have come across in my thirty year policing career. It is preposterous.”

Later that day Mr Ellis wrote an email to Ms Gray in which he also referred to “another quite stunning decision this morning by the LCJ".

“I forward this to alert you to the preposterous direction of the court,” he wrote.

A day later Ms Gray responded to Mr Ellis, describing the content of his email as “totally unacceptable”.

“This totally inappropriate communication has been raised at the most senior level within PSNI and will be raised with Mr Barton as your senior lead,” she wrote.

“The independence and conduct of the LCJ and the courts in NI cannot be called into question in this manner and your comments do not reflect the impartiality and independence of policing.”

It has also emerged that former PSNI Chief Constable George Hamilton raised the matter with Mr Barton both by phone and email, in which he said the “tone and content of the email” was “deeply concerning”.

New PSNI Chief Constable Simon Byrne also wrote to Mr Barton in July, saying that Mr Ellis appeared to remain involved in Operation Yurta despite his predecessor having been "left with the clear impression" that he would have no further involvement.

The emails are contained in a PSNI report requested by the Policing Board earlier this year, which has been seen by The Irish News.

Mr Murphy last night said he was “shocked” by Mr Ellis's remarks.

“This was an unwarranted and outrageous attack on the Lord Chief Justice," he said.

“For a senior police officer to call into question his independence is completely unacceptable."

Asked about the emails, SDLP Policing Board member Dolores Kelly said: “I was dumbfounded at the level of arrogance and lack of oversight displayed."

Sinn Féin board member Philip McGuigan also described the comments as "outrageous".

"I believe the judgment was right and proper and from the very beginning the focus of this investigation should have been on those who carried out the murders in Loughinisland and not two journalists trying to uncover the truth of what happened," he said.

A PSNI spokeswoman last night confirmed that Mr Barton was still heading the investigation but that Mr Ellis has been replaced.

:: No Stone Unturned will be broadcast on RTÉ tomorrow at 9.35pm.

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