Loughinisland film-makers to retrieve seized material
Two arrested documentary makers will on Tuesday retrieve a haul of journalistic material unlawfully seized by police.
Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey will travel to a police station in Belfast to collect their possessions, hours after detectives dramatically dropped their investigation into them.
Police are being forced by the courts to return laptops, hard drives, mobile phones, notepads and millions of digital files.
The outcome of last week’s challenge in the civil courts, which ruled search warrants used by police unlawful, prompted officers to announce late on Monday that their criminal probe into the film makers was being discontinued.
Mr Birney and Mr McCaffrey were arrested last August over the alleged theft of a police watchdog document that appeared in their film on a notorious loyalist massacre during the Northern Ireland Troubles.
The reporters, who insist the material on the Loughinisland killings came from an anonymous whistleblower, had been on bail ever since.
The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) had asked Durham Police to investigate the alleged theft.
Both organisations confirmed on Monday that the reporters were no longer under investigation – though they said the probe into the alleged theft would continue.
Mr Birney and Mr McCaffrey told the Press Association: “Our first thoughts are with the Loughinisland families.
“The attack on us was an attack on them. We call on the PSNI and Durham to apologise to them for putting them through this unlawful charade.
“The police have dropped the case for one reason only – finally, they accept that by arresting us and raiding our homes and offices, they were the ones that acted unlawfully.”
The film makers’ case has attracted worldwide attention, with the award-winning reporters having mobilised a high-profile campaign against what they portrayed as an attack on press freedom.
Monday’s development came days after three senior judges in Belfast quashed warrants used by police to seize a wide range of journalistic material from early morning raids on the men’s homes and their film company, Fine Point.
Their 2017 documentary No Stone Unturned broke new ground by naming suspects it said were involved in the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) killings of six Catholic men gathered in a village pub watching the Republic of Ireland play a World Cup football match on TV.
No-one has ever been convicted of the murders.
Police had been investigating how information contained in a Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland document appeared in No Stone Unturned.
As the Loughinisland killings have long been linked to allegations of police collusion, PSNI chief constable George Hamilton had asked Durham Police to conduct the investigation, citing potential conflict of interest concerns if local officers led the probe.
Mr McCaffrey and Mr Birney were highly critical of the two police forces.
“The PSNI put the cudgel in the hands of Durham Constabulary and let them loose on us and on press freedom itself,” they said on Monday.
The men have questioned why detectives had not instead focused on going after the Loughinisland killers.
The men called for an immediate and independent investigation, demanding that senior officers in the PSNI and Durham Police were “held accountable”.
They added: “We’ve been humbled by those at home and abroad who have stood by us throughout the past nine months.
“But most of all, we thank the Loughinisland families. We are proud to have brought their story to the world.”
Durham Constabulary’s Chief Constable Mike Barton confirmed the move on Monday night.
“At all times, my officers have acted in good faith, within the law and followed due process,” he insisted.
“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.”
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.”
In response to the criticism levelled by Mr Birney and Mr McCaffrey, a PPS spokeswoman said: “The conduct of investigations, including applying for and executing search warrants, is entirely a matter for police.”