Court refuses to hear Winkie Rea’s appeal over Boston tapes

Solicitor of former loyalist confirms they will take case to European Court of Human Rights

A man walks past graffiti on a wall off the Falls Road, Belfast, in 2014. photograph: Paul Hackett/Reuters

A man walks past graffiti on a wall off the Falls Road, Belfast, in 2014. photograph: Paul Hackett/Reuters


Supreme Court judges in London have refused to hear an appeal by a former loyalist prisoner seeking to stop police accessing interviews he gave to an American university project.

Detectives investigating murder and other paramilitary crimes are now expected to seek possession of the tapes of Winston ‘Winkie’ Rea’s account to Boston College.

The material has been kept under lock and key while Rea fights a legal battle to stop the PSNI from listening in. But his lawyers are to make one final bid to get the case before the European Court of Human Rights on an emergency basis.

Rea was among dozens of loyalists and republicans who provided testimonies to Boston College researchers compiling an oral history of the Northern Ireland conflict. Interviews were given on the understanding that tapes would not be made public until after their deaths.

Those assurances were dealt a blow in 2013 when detectives investigating the abduction and murder of Belfast mother-of-ten Jean McConville back in 1972 secured the transcripts of former IRA woman Dolours Price’s account.

That material was handed over following court battles on both sides of the Atlantic. Rea, a son-in-law of the late UVF leader Gusty Spence, claimed a subpoena for his tapes is unlawful and unspecific.

He took legal action after an investigation was launched into serious crimes stretching from the seventies to the late nineties. The alleged offences include murder, directing terrorism, membership of a prescribed organisation and robbery.

An international request for the tapes said police have information that Rea was a member of the Red Hand Commando whose interviews would assist investigations into those crimes.

In February a High Court judge threw out his challenge after holding that the legal test for seeking the material had been met.

Following that verdict two PSNI detectives boarded a flight to Boston to collect the recordings. But with their flight mid-Atlantic Rea’s legal team secured a last-minute order restraining any handover while they contested the ruling.

In an appeal the loyalist argued that prosecuting authorities were acting on a hunch rather than any firm knowledge that the tapes contain information relevant to any investigation.

He also claimed the request, made under the Crime (International Co-operation) Act, breached Rea’s right to privacy.

However, counsel for the Public Prosecution Service claimed Rea had no reasonable expectation of privacy around what he told the Boston researchers.

During the legal battle PSNI officers were allowed to travel back from Boston with the unopened tapes.

Since then the sealed container has been kept under guard at the Royal Courts of Justice in Belfast.

When the Court of Appeal rejected Rea’s claims that handing over the interviews would breach his right to privacy he took his case to London. But on Monday judges at the Supreme Court refused permission to appeal.

They ruled that the case does not raise an arguable point of law of general public importance.

Lawyers for the PSNI are now believed to be preparing moves to have the injunction lifted.

However, Rea’s solicitor insisted the battle was not yet lost. Kevin Winters confirmed: “We are lodging an application for an urgent hearing at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

“We are also going to ask solicitors for the police to give us an undertaking not to access the tapes pending any expedited hearing.”