Two investigative journalists have accused the PSNI of “malicious intent” after a bogus case against them in relation to a documentary on collusion in the north of Ireland was finally dropped.
The scandal over the treatment of the two journalists was compounded by an admission that the case had been brought by police in order to protect loyalists involved in the Loughinisland massacre. Six Catholic men were shot dead in the County Down village after gunmen opened fire in a pub as their victims watched a World Cup football match in 1994. No one has ever been charged with the attack.
The journalists had been involved in a documentary titled ‘No Stone Unturned’, which exposed police failings and evident collusion. Their arrest earlier this year immediately appeared little more than a cover-up to prevent them from uncovering more uncomfortable truths. It was claimed the pair had been in receipt of ‘stolen information’ from a whistleblower linked to the office of the Police Ombudsman.
This week, the case was dropped and the journalists’ research materials retuned, but without any sign of apology or regret from those who directed the police actions.
Mr Birney and Mr McCaffrey collected their possessions from a PSNI barracks in east Belfast on Tuesday. The items collected included laptops, hard drives, mobile phones, notepads and millions of digital files.
They said: “Our first thoughts are with the Loughinisland families. The attack on us was an attack on them.”
During the hearing last week, lawyers for the men argued that the search operation was aimed at discovering sources and intimidating whistleblowers by a system more akin to a police state than a professed democracy. Justice Declan Morgan agreed the granting of the search warrants was “inappropriate” and the two journalists had acted in a perfectly proper manner to protect their sources.
“I think there was a malicious intent in this investigation,” said Mr Birney.
“I think it’s very well known that many in the upper ranks of the PSNI still have difficulty in the truth that there was collusion in Loughinisland and that the police did collude with the UVF in murdering six men in June 1994, almost 25 years ago.”
Mr Birney also called for the chief of the PSNI to apologise to the families of those killed in Loughinisland.
“George Hamilton should apologise to the Loughinisland families for putting them through this,” he said.
“To see them at the back of the court again last week seemingly having to defend their integrity and their relatives that died, it’s shocking that George Hamilton and the PSNI decided to put them through this again, and for what?”
‘DRAGGED THROUGH THE MUD’
Mr McCaffrey said their names “were dragged through the mud”.
“Trevor’s children were forced to watch him being arrested and taken away, an eight-year-old girl. Was this necessary? Why did this have to happen?”
Among the items returned were Mr Birney’s wife’s phone and his daughter’s pink phone. He pointed to a child’s USB stick.
“The key thing that you can see is finally my daughter is getting her little lollypop USB stick back, which apparently has her GCSE homework coursework on,” he said.
“These were obviously critical to the investigation into myself and Barry and what we are meant to have done. It tells you everything you need to know about this investigation.”
Those who directed, led and oversaw what the police were doing had questions to answer, he said.
“This investigation really had no focus other than sending a chill factor to journalists and no matter who got caught up in that, whether it was my children or Barry’s family.”
He asked: “What is the evidential value of a pink phone, a USB stick and a lollypop USB stick? It is ridiculous, it is laughable, and I think there have to be questions asked and answers given - people have to be held to account.”
Answering questions at a meeting of the Policing Board on Thursday, Hamilton and chief of Durham police Mike Barton refused to apologise.
The belligerent PSNI boss insisted he had ‘done the right thing’, despite the judge’s finding that he had broken the law. Barton said he had now “changed his mind” about the law.
Both men are likekly to evade any consequences of their aations in the case: Hamilton is due to retire at the end of June, while the head of Durham police retired this weekend. In another slap in the face for victims, both men were awarded honours by the queen on Friday.
“This cannot be allowed to happen,” said Mr McCaffrey. “Somebody has to be held to account. This is not right.”
He spoke directly to the outgoing chief constable: “George Hamilton, it’s not too late to do the right thing.
“He can do the right thing. He can give justice to the Loughinisland families... The lord justice has said that what we do is right, we have the right to hold people to account.
“George, you need to think what you’re doing and give justice to Loughinisland, give justice to Enniskillen, the Ormeau Road. Don’t leave with a bad legacy. Do the right thing.”
Mr Birney said the men had asked the court for remedy to include an immediate apology to the Loughinisland families.
“In a couple of weeks’ time they will have to mark the 25th anniversary of that horrendous act on June 18 1994,” he said.
“What (PSNI chief constable) George Hamilton should do is apologise to them for the pain that has been inflicted on them by this absolute charade that he’s put us through. That’s first and foremost the apology that he should give.”