Northern Ireland news

Three folders of sensitive material at core of Noah Donohoe family document dispute with police

A large protest rally in support of the Noah Donohoe campaign outside Belfast City Hall. Picture Mal McCann.
John Breslin

THREE folders of sensitive material with some information blacked out is at the centre of a dispute between the police and the family of Noah Donohoe.

The PSNI wants some of the information, largely the grading of sources, intelligence document numbers and some names, to be withheld from the inquest into the June 2020 death of the 14-year-old.

Noah’s body was discovered inside a storm drain in north Belfast six days after he disappeared while travelling to visit friends.

His inquest is due to take place in November. A large crowd gathered recently in Belfast to protest against the PSNI's use of a public interest immunity (PII) certificate to stop certain information being revealed.

The PII application was signed off by Secretary of State Shailesh Vara but it will be up to Mr Justice Michael Humphreys, the presiding judge of the coroner’s court, to decide whether all, any or none of the information should be revealed.

Fiona Donohoe, Noah's mother, her sister Niamh and one other member of the public attended a hearing yesterday. Several supporters gathered outside the court.

Donal Lunny, counsel for the PSNI, said the requested redactions are in three folders, a review of the case, internal investigative documents and intelligence forms, including information from sources. While some names and addresses are redacted, much of what is blacked out are numbers, the grading of information and sources based on reliability and intelligence document numbers.

Mr Lunny said the redactions were necessary because there would be a “real risk to the public interest” should the information be revealed. The information reveals details of “police methodology and capability” and the redactions are a matter of national security.

But Brenda Campbell, counsel for Noah’s mother Fiona, questioned how a grading could be a matter related to national security. She argued that knowing the opinion of investigators on the reliability of information or sources will be important in the search for more answers surrounding the disappearance and death of Noah, and the police investigation.

Justice Humphreys said there was “nothing sinister” about the police requesting a PII certificates, which were not unusual and promised to have come to a decision within the next seven days. The High Court judge stressed he was an independent and impartial decision maker.

Ms Campbell accepted the use of PII certificates are not uncommon but they were unusual in connection with the death of a child where the police do not believe there was any third party involvement.

Evidence produced so far does not clearly answer several questions, including whether it was an accident, he took his own life or whether it was as a result of the actions of a third party, Ms Campbell told the court.

Under the rules governing the granting of PII certificates, the coroner will have to decide whether there is a “real risk of serious harm to the public interest” but to balance this with the delivery of justice in an open and transparent way.

He will also take into account whether there is some other way of revealing the bulk of any redacted information in another way while noting the opinion of Mr Vara, who signed off on the certificate in late July, three weeks into the job.

But Mr Justice Humphreys said that while the secretary of state’s assertion was important, he is “not the decision maker”.

Northern Ireland news