PSNI drops criminal inquiry into Loughinisland journalists

Northern Ireland police fast-track return of Loughinisland journalists’ materials

Journalists Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey at Belfast High Court last week. Photograph: Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker

Journalists Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey at Belfast High Court last week. Photograph: Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker

 

Police have ended their investigation of two Belfast-based journalists who were arrested over material they aired in their documentary on the Loughinisland murders.

Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey were arrested last August as part of a criminal investigation into how information contained in a Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland document appeared in their film, No Stone Unturned. Durham Police were called in by officers from Northern Ireland to investigate the alleged theft.

The reporters, who said the material came from an anonymous whistleblower, have been on bail ever since.

Mr Birney and Mr McCaffrey said on Monday night: “Our first thoughts are with the Loughinisland families. The attack on us was an attack on them.”

Last week, three senior judges in Belfast quashed warrants used by police to seize a wide range of journalistic material from the men’s homes and from Fine Point Films.

The 2017 documentary named suspects it said were involved in the 1994 Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) killings of six Catholic men who were gathered in a village pub to watch the Republic of Ireland play a World Cup football match on TV.

No-one has ever been convicted of the murders.

Durham constabulary’s chief constable confirmed the journalists are no longer being investigated.

‘Not to progress’

Mike Barton said on Monday night: “Following the outcome of last week’s judicial review, a decision has now been taken not to progress the investigation into those two individuals and both will be immediately released from police bail.”

Mr Barton said police were “in the process of concluding what has been a highly complex investigation, with some final lines of inquiry still to be assessed. These lines of inquiry do not include the journalists, Mr Birney or Mr McCaffrey, as suspects in the investigation.

“At all times, my officers have acted in good faith, within the law and followed due process. The warrant application was originally submitted to, and approved by, a county court judge. We do, however, accept and respect the decision of the High Court last week.

“We plan to produce a final report to the Chief Constable of the PSNI outlining all of our findings.”

PSNI Chief Constable George Hamilton said: “I have always accepted the autonomy of Chief Constable Barton’s inquiry and I fully concur with his decision not to progress the investigation into the two journalists Mr Birney and Mr McCaffrey.

“Throughout the period of this investigation, the horror of what happened in Loughinisland has never been far from any of our thoughts. The perpetrators of that crime have never been brought to justice and that is a matter of huge regret for policing.

“The police investigation into who murdered the six innocent men in the Heights Bar in 1994 remains open but progress is dependent on new information. There are people out there who know what happened. I would appeal to them to come forward and make a statement that will help us finally bring justice to the families of the victims.

“I am aware that the investigation over the last year has caused concern for families who have already suffered so much. That is something none of us would ever have wished to do.

“However, as a police service, the suspected theft or unlawful leaking of any sensitive documents containing information that may endanger life is a serious matter which we are statutorily obliged to investigate.

“Recognising the sensitivities, we asked an independent police service to conduct the investigation. The clarity provided by last week’s hearing has now brought a significant part of that investigation to a conclusion. I await the final report from Durham on this complex investigation.”

Reclaimed

The journalistic documents and equipment the PSNI inappropriately seized are available to be reclaimed, a court heard earlier on Monday.

Belfast High Court was told police had fast-tracked the curation of the material.

Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland Declan Morgan last week said the granting of the search warrants was “inappropriate” and the two journalists acted in a perfectly proper manner to protect their sources. On Friday, Mr Morgan and two fellow High Court judges formally quashed the warrant.

At a follow-up hearing on Monday, Peter Coll QC, representing the Police Service of Northern Ireland, told the judges Deputy Chief Constable Stephen Martin had moved to expedite the collection of the material.

“That resulted in the material that was seized from the three premises now [being] available for collection and now it’s a matter of arrangements being made between parties for that to be completed.”

Mr Morgan replied: “Thank Mr Martin for his appropriately prompt response in relation to this issue.” – PA