A meeting of the Northern Ireland policing board has further exposed sharp differences between PSNI chief constable George Hamilton and the North's police ombudsman Michael Maguire over the arrests of journalists Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey.
Mr Hamilton and the chief constable of Durham constabulary, Mike Barton, insisted at a board meeting on Thursday that they had received a formal complaint from Dr Maguire's office about the alleged theft of a document from the ombudsman's office that was used in the film No Stone Unturned about the Loughinisland killings 25 years ago.
Mr Hamilton expressed incredulity that after the ombudsman’s office reported details of the matter to the police in October 2017 and in February 2018, that he would not be expected to investigate.
Mr Hamilton said the investigation was “uncomfortable and awkward” to commission but that he was “statutorily obliged” to investigate the alleged theft because the leak of the document could “endanger lives”.
The film No Stone Unturned, which cited details from the document, named suspects allegedly involved in the June 1994 Ulster Volunteer Force attack on the Heights Bar in Loughinisland, Co Down, in which six men were killed while watching a World Cup game between the Republic of Ireland and Italy on television.
At the board meeting, vice-chairwoman Deborah Watters said recent court findings highlighted failings in relation to the arrests that "infringed the rights surrounding press freedom and resulted in significant reputational damage to the PSNI and confidence in policing".
Referring to the disagreement with Dr Maguire’s office over whether its approach amounted to a complaint of theft, Mr Hamilton said it was “incongruent” for any senior official to hold such a position in relation to a suspected theft that could endanger life. “It does not make sense to me at any level,” he said.
He was in no doubt that what the ombudsman’s office reported to the police amounted to a complaint, even if the office insisted there was no complaint. “What on earth did they expect us to do other than to investigate it?” he said.
Referring to Dr Maguire, he said, “I am at a loss. If the ombudsman is saying it wasn’t a statement of complaint and he is refusing to make one, I can’t understand how that is tenable in the position that he holds.”
Mr Hamilton said he would be prepared to see an inquiry being held into the arrests if that would assist the case.
Speaking after the board meeting, a spokesman for Dr Maguire said the ombudsman’s office informed the PSNI in October 2017 about people who could be at risk.
“The day after we had a viewing of the documentary, we briefed PSNI that it had identified a number of individuals, who may now be at risk, and that it had shown extracts from what appeared to be a police ombudsman document, albeit in different format to our documents. We did not make a complaint of theft,” he said.
Mr Birney and Mr McCaffrey, who were involved in making the film, were in the board’s public gallery with members of the Loughinisland families as Mr Hamilton made his points.
The journalists were arrested in August last year at their homes in a major security operation run by Durham Constabulary. Their computers and others items were seized. Mr Hamilton had invited Mr Barton and Durham police to investigate the alleged theft of the document.
Mr Birney and Mr McCaffrey said they received the document from a whistleblower.
Last week the Northern Ireland lord chief justice Declan Morgan ordered the return of the seized items, saying that police had obtained "inappropriate" search warrants.
Sinn Féin board member Gerry Kelly invited Mr Barton to apologise to the journalists but he declined that opportunity. However, the police chief did apologise for any distress caused to the Loughinisland families.
Mr Barton said: “I absolutely respect press freedom, but I do not – in my view, and I have been corrected by the lord chief justice – I do not think it appropriate that secret documents that put people’s lives at risk are put out there in the public domain. I think those discretions should be fettered.”
Mr Hamilton said the cost of the investigation relating to Mr Birney and Mr McCaffrey was estimated at £320,000. Unless there was new evidence and particularly new witness evidence he accepted it was unlikely the killers would be caught.
Moira Casement, whose 87-year-old uncle Barney Greene was shot dead in the attack, said "that money would have been better spent in investigating the perpetrators of the murder of six innocent men 25 years ago".