North judge rebukes police for seizing papers from journalists
Items linked to 1994 massacre must be returned to Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey
Investigative journalists Barry McCaffrey (left) and Trevor Birney outside Belfast High Court where a judge has order the police to return documents seized from them by police. Photograph: PA
Northern Ireland’s top judge has delivered a stinging rebuke to the Police Service of Northern Ireland for raiding the homes and offices of two journalists who investigated a notorious - and unresolved - massacre during the Troubles.
The lord chief justice of Northern Ireland, Declan Morgan, said on Friday that police had obtained “inappropriate” search warrants and ordered them to return laptops, phones, documents and other material seized from Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey.
The judge vindicated the journalists, saying they had acted in “perfectly proper manner” in protecting their sources for the documentary No Stone Unturned, which investigated the June 1994 murder of six Catholics in Loughinisland, Co Down, by Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) gunmen.
Birney and McCaffrey embraced their lawyers and supporters and called the judge’s decision a huge relief.
“Today restores our faith in the checks and balances of the court system,” Birney said outside the high court in Belfast on Friday. “It’s a damning indictment of the police investigation.”
Seamus Dooley, the assistant secretary general of the National Union of Journalists of Ireland, hailed the judge’s decision. “It’s a good day for journalism and a good day for human rights in Northern Ireland, ” he said.
No one has been charged for the atrocity at Loughinisland, where three masked gunmen entered the Heights pub and opened fire on customers watching the Republic of Ireland play Italy in the World Cup. The oldest to die was Barney Greene (87). The youngest was Adrian Rogan (34).
The 2017 documentary, directed by Oscar-winning director Alex Gibney, reconstructed the attack and the police investigation, named the main suspects and questioned murky contacts between police and loyalist paramilitaries.
Rather than follow up leads in the documentary, police targeted the journalists. They arrested Birney and McCaffrey in dawn raids last August on suspicion of stealing an unredacted police ombudsman investigation into the massacre.
The pair, who have remained on bail without charge, challenged the legality of the search warrants in a judicial review.
Sir Declan Morgan signalled his decision at a hearing on Wednesday when he said the court was “minded to quash the warrants on the basis they were inappropriate”.
On Friday, he repeated that the warrants were inappropriate and absolved the journalists. “The material... which was subsequently demonstrated to us does not indicate that the journalists acted in anything other than a perfectly proper manner with a view to protecting their sources in a lawful way.
“We consider that in any event in the light of the legal authorities that the execution or granting of the search warrant was inappropriate.”
The judge said the seized material, which includes millions of pages of documents, should be returned. He said the journalists should retain Loughinisland material of potential interest to the police. The pair remain under investigation pending a police decision to continue or drop the case.
Niall Murphy, a solicitor for the men, said evidence presented this week had exposed the “warped mindset” of police who pursued journalists rather than murderers. “Senior police must now reflect on their actions and and stop this farce of an investigation.”
The raids against the men were overseen by officers from Durham constabulary, after being asked to take over the case by the Police Service of Northern Ireland due to a potential conflict of interest.
Chief constable Mike Barton, from Durham Constabulary, said in a statement on Friday that due process was followed in applying for the warrants. “We respect the outcome of today’s hearing and the judge’s decision, and we will consider its implications,” he said.
Chief constable Barton is due to accompany the PSNI chief constable George Hamilton at a meeting of the Northern Ireland policing board on June 6th.
The case has become a cause célèbre among press freedom campaigners, who have drawn comparisons with the UK government’s attempts to encourage journalistic freedoms overseas.
It has also created unusual alliances. The journalists’ legal team includes John Finucane, a solicitor and Sinn Féin councillor who was recently elected lord mayor of Belfast.
A high-profile political supporter is David Davis, the Conservative MP and former Brexit minister who is a veteran campaigner for press freedom.
After attending the hearings on Wednesday and Friday, Mr Davis commended the judge for upholding press freedom. “You could hardly ask for a better judgement,” he said.
McCaffrey thanked the Tory for swapping Westminster for Belfast to show his solidarity. “If there’s one person that went above and beyond it’s David Davis.” - Guardian