The High Court in Belfast has ruled that warrants for the police raids which led to the arrest of two journalists last August were “inappropriate” and should be quashed, and that all material seized during raids on their homes and offices should be handed back.
The outcome represents a major victory for Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey in their challenge to the legality of PSNI efforts to suppress investigations into a cover-up of collusion in the Loughinisland massacre.
In June 1994, a group of Catholics were sprayed with UVF paramilitary gunfire as they watched Ireland play a World Cup soccer match in a pub in Loughinisland, County Down. Six died at the scene, while five others were wounded but survived.
The PSNI acting with English police seizing documents and equipment involve the ‘No Stone Unturned’ documentary on the killings, accusing the award-winning ivenstigative journalists of “theft of information”.
In August last year they were detained, questioned and released during an operation undertaken by Durham police supported by the PSNI. Millions of documents, computer equipment and phones were taken and efforts made to reveal their sources.
Speaking for the two men, counsel Barry Macdonald said: “This was the kind of operation more associated with a police state than with a liberal democracy.”
The court heard the top policeman defended their actions by claiming members of the UVF death squad had been “put in danger for merely having the misfortune of being involved in terrorist atrocities at whatever level”.
Aidan O’Toole, who was serving the bar on the night of the atrocity, and who survived his injuries, said he was “devastated” to hear the police were motivated by concern for the welfare of the UVF killers.
Barry McDonald QC, acting for one of the journalists, described the stance as “a staggering proposition” and evidence of the “warped mindset” of the Crown Forces.
Outside court Mr Birney noted that following the release of their documentary, police focused on the journalists, instead of those responsible for the murders at Loughinisland.
“That speaks volumes about where priorities lay for the senior ranks of the PSNI,” he said.
“Why did they make the focus of their investigations two journalists, rather than using their resources to go after the killers and trying to bring justice to the Loughinisland families almost 25 years later?”
Describing the police operation as an attempt to “send a chill factor through journalists investigating the past in Northern Ireland”, Mr Birney insisted all of the material seized must now be returned.
He added: “They should hand back the millions of documents, computers, laptops and also the mobile phones belonging to my children that they took from my home.”
Following the hearing, Mr Birney urged police to “stop digging”.
“They are on a hiding to nothing on the criminal case but I’ve no doubt that the PSNI and those who instigated this investigation, who resourced it and who funded it, will be determined to try to continue with this,” he added.