Police investigating murder and robbery are finally to get access to interviews a former loyalist prisoner gave to an American university project.
Senior judges in Belfast on Friday lifted an injunction on the PSNI taking possession of Winston "Winkie" Rea's recorded account to Boston College researchers.
Detectives were present with a bag ready for the handover of tapes which had been held under lock and key at the Royal Courts of Justice. They were given the all-clear after lawyers for Rea confirmed their final bid to secure a block had been turned down.
The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg refused to grant an interim prohibition as part of last-ditch efforts to stop the PSNI from listening in. Lord Justice Coghlin then declared: "The time has come for us to lift the injunction and allow the materials to be examined by the police."
Detectives want to access the recordings as part of their investigations into murder and other paramilitary crimes from the 1970s to 1990s. Rea’s legal team argued that it would breach his right to privacy.
He was among dozens of loyalists and republicans who provided testimonies to Boston College staff 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.
An international request for Rea's tapes said police have information that he was a member of the Red Hand Commando whose interviews would assist investigations into serious crimes. His lawyers claimed a subpoena for his tapes is unlawful and unspecific.
Earlier this year both the High Court and Court of Appeal rejected his challenge. By that stage PSNI detectives had returned from Boston with the recordings – only to be barred from accessing them while the legal battle continued.
It seemed they would finally get to examine the material last month when the Supreme Court in London refused to hear a further appeal. However, an applicant for an urgent hearing in Strasbourg was then lodged – effectively Rea's last throw of the dice.
Although he is intent on pursuing a breach of privacy claim at the European court, his request for further interim measures was turned down. Rea’s barrister, Ronan Lavery QC, accepted the injunction was likely to be removed. But he insisted: “The appellant is confident that there is nothing in his past or anything contained in these tapes which hasn’t already been dealt with by the criminal courts.
“There’s nothing which would lead to any kind of prosecution, he’s entitled to a determination and confirmation that there will be no prosecution within a short period of time. He’s a man who has health difficulties.”
On that basis lawyers for both the Public Prosecution Service and the Chief Constable argued that the recordings should now be released.
Peter Coll QC, representing the PPS, said: “The matter has now reached the stage where the options for the appellant have effectively run out.”
Tony McGleenan QC, for the Chief Constable, backed his call for the ban to be lifted. He said: “Detectives are available in the building to obtain the tapes if the court can make the administrative steps.”
Lord Justice Coghlin, sitting with Mr Justice Maguire, pointed out that the case has passed through several layers of judicial consideration in Belfast and London.
He confirmed: “Accordingly, we now lift the injunction formally in relation to the Boston Tapes in this case. “I understand the tapes physically are somewhere within this building.”