Northern Ireland news

Call for Policing Board investigation after PSNI agree to pay £875,000 damages over raids on journalists

Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey outside the High Court in Belfast yesterday. Picture by Hugh Russell

THE Policing Board is to be asked to investigate the arrests of Barry McCaffrey and Trevor Birney after the PSNI agreed to pay out nearly £900,000 in damages as part of a settlement reached with the two journalists whose homes were unlawfully raided.

Any information retained on the PSNI's systems is also to be deleted under the terms of a resolution in the action.

In an unprecedented outcome hailed as victory for press freedom, police will foot the bill for the investigative reporters' legal costs as well.

In August 2018 Mr Birney and Mr McCaffrey were detained, questioned and released in a case linked to a documentary film on the Loughinisland atrocity.

Raids were also carried out at their homes and offices after warrants were granted as part of an investigation into the suspected theft of confidential papers from the Police Ombudsman's Office.

Computer equipment, files, phones, cameras and notebooks were all seized during an operation undertaken by detectives from Durham Constabulary, supported by PSNI officers.

The case was connected to the No Stone Unturned film, which examined the RUC's handling of the loyalist murders of six Catholic men at Loughinisland, Co Down in June 1994.

In May last year the journalists won a challenge to the legality of warrants.

The High Court found that authorisation for the searches fell "woefully short" of fair standards, and that Mr Birney and Mr McCaffrey had at all times acted as investigative reporters adhering to their professional code by protecting sources.

Days later police announced they had dropped their investigation into the pair.

Even though all confiscated material was returned to the journalists after the search warrants were quashed, backed-up information remained on police systems.

Subsequent efforts focused on securing a final remedy over any copied data still stored by the PSNI, including a process of mediation.

The journalists also then sued for wrongful arrest.

In court yesterday Barry Macdonald QC, for Mr Birney, announced that a confidential settlement has been reached in the case taken by the reporters and Finepoint Films.

Although no figure was disclosed, it is understood that a total payout of £875,000 has been agreed.

"The applicant's primary concerns in this case have always been the protection of sources and the freedom of the press," Mr Macdonald said.

"The issues around the deletion and security of the remaining material have been resolved to the applicants' satisfaction and their sources remain fully protected."

Welcoming the outcome, Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan said: "We congratulate the parties on finding an answer to this interesting and difficult, but also important case."

The National Union of Journalists later congratulated its members on the settlement, saying it was a "great day for journalism and for all who care for human rights".

It said Mr McCaffrey and Mr Birney "took a brave stance to defend themselves and they paid a heavy personal price for doing so".

Patrick Corrigan, of Amnesty International, pledged to write to the Policing Board to demand a full investigation into the "troubling case".

"Time after time, the PSNI has chosen to tear up the rule book and ride roughshod over the principle of press freedom," he claimed.

"The Policing Board must now take responsibility for addressing the fall-out of this debacle, which has caused huge harm to public confidence in policing in Northern Ireland, and between legal fees, court costs and damages, has cost millions of pounds to the public purse.

"Those in senior positions within the police who took the decisions and gave the orders must be held accountable. Lessons must finally be learned."

Mr Corrigan added: "The day of dawn raids at the homes of journalists in Northern Ireland must be over."

DUP Policing Board member Mervyn Storey also said the settlement "raises serious questions for the police".

"With the case now concluded and the award of costs and damages made, I have written to the Chief Constable to ascertain the entire cost of this case including police time both here and in Durham. There needs to be full transparency.

"The headline figure today is of compensation but I imagine the total cost of this mess will be many multiples of this.”

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