Northern Ireland news

Unreserved apology by PSNI chief constable to journalists Barry McCaffrey and Trevor Birney

Investigative journalists Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey. Picture by Hugh Russell

AN unreserved apology by the PSNI chief constable to two journalists arrested over material that appeared in a documentary on a Troubles massacre was last night welcomed but described as "long overdue".

Simon Byrne wrote to Barry McCaffrey and Trevor Birney to apologise after the Court of Appeal quashed a search warrant used to raid their homes and offices in August 2018.

Mr Byrne said he accepted the search warrants had been "unlawful".

The investigative journalists were detained over the alleged theft of a police watchdog document that appeared in their film No Stone Unturned, based on a notorious loyalist massacre in Loughinisland in 1994.

The film focused on how the RUC handled the UVF murders of six Catholic men at a pub in the Co Down village.

Last year judges ruled search warrants used by police had been "inappropriate", which led to the criminal probe into the journalists being dropped.

A ruling last week by Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan also found there was "no overriding requirement in the public interest which could have justified an interference with the protection of journalistic sources in this case".

And yesterday it emerged the police constable had sent separate letters of apology to the two men.

He offered them "an unreserved apology for the distress and upset caused to them and their families following the execution of search warrants at their homes and business premises".

In a statement, Mr Byrne said: "While the searches were planned and conducted at the direction of officers from Durham Constabulary, those officers were acting on behalf of the PSNI in an external capacity and I fully accept the ruling of the Lord Chief Justice that the search warrants were unlawful.

"The PSNI will be reviewing all findings of the judgment to ensure that all appropriate learning is taken.

"I have notified both Mr McCaffrey and Mr Birney’s legal representatives that I am keen to resolve all the outstanding matters through a process of mediation in order to bring this matter to a conclusion.

"Until these issues are resolved the Police Service of Northern Ireland will be making no further comment."

Mr McCaffrey welcomed the move, but said it was "unfortunate that it has taken the PSNI 685 days to do the right thing and finally apologise".

"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," he said.

"This was a deliberate and direct attack on press freedom.

"On the morning of our arrest, the police publicly accused us of having put people's 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 judgment that this was completely untrue and without foundation."

He added: "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?"

Mr Birney said he believed Mr Byrne's apology was sincere.

"We need assurances that this won't happen again and that no other journalists or their families should be put through what we've gone through in the last couple of years," he told BBC Talkback.

"There has been a shadow that's been cast across myself and Barry, our careers, our family life, our personal life, our professional lives as a result of the actions that were unlawful back in August 2018."

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