Northern Ireland

Loughinisland: Police told to return journalists' papers

Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey with NUJ poster
Image caption Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey had mounted a legal challenge against the police raids carried out at their homes and offices

Police have been told to return documents seized from two investigative journalists in Belfast.

The material was taken from the homes and offices of Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey in August last year.

The items seized include thousands of files containing millions of pages.

On Friday, High Court judges ruled that search warrants issued against the men were "inappropriate" and they recommended the return of the material, under agreed terms and conditions.

Image copyright Pacemaker
Image caption The attack in Loughinisland took place in June 1994 at the Heights Bar

The award-winning investigative journalists were involved in the documentary film, No Stone Unturned, which examined the Royal Ulster Constabulary's (RUC) handling of the Loughinisland atrocity.

Six Catholic men were killed when Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) gunmen opened fire in a village pub as their victims watched a World Cup football match in 1994.

The journalists were detained in August last year, questioned and later released during an operation undertaken by detectives from Durham Constabulary, supported by Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) officers.

Search warrants were obtained as part of an investigation into the suspected theft of confidential documents from the Northern Ireland Police Ombudsman's office.

Mr Birney and Mr McCaffrey had mounted a legal challenge against the police raids carried out at their homes and office.

Judicial review proceedings were brought in a bid to have the warrants declared unlawful.

The judges stopped short of issuing an order on the issue until the terms had been finalised. Another hearing will take place at 15:30 BST on Monday.

During Friday's hearing, Lord Chief Justice Morgan said the High Court had heard nothing to indicate the journalists had done anything wrong.

He said the court had seen nothing to indicate that the journalists had "acted in anything other than a perfectly proper manner with a view to protecting their sources in a lawful way".

Chief Constable Mike Barton, from Durham Constabulary, said it had followed "due process when applying for the search warrants".

"A detailed application was presented to a County Court judge who granted the warrants," he added.

"We respect the outcome of today's hearing and the judge's decision, and we will consider its implications."

The Northern Ireland Policing Board said Friday's ruling "raises some serious questions around the circumstances and handling of this investigation".

It said the PSNI chief constable has been asked to report to the board next week "on its implications and he will be accompanied by the chief constable of Durham Constabulary".

Niall Murphy, Mr Birney's solicitor, told BBC Radio Ulster's Evening Extra programme on Friday that he "would encourage both chief constables to reflect on the precise words that were uttered in the court this week, and to stand back and stop".

The judges said that although the material should be returned to the journalists, they should give an undertaking not to destroy it for a limited period of time.

The raids were described in court this week by Mr Birney's lawyer as the type of operation that only happens in a "police state".

Image caption Former Brexit secretary David Davis was at court to support the two journalists

The High Court judicial review was heard by Lord Chief Justice Morgan, Lord Justice Treacy and Mrs Justice Keegan.

Mr Birney and Mr McCaffrey attended the hearing throughout, along with a number of supporters, including fellow journalists.

The National Union of Journalists (NUJ) welcomed the ruling on Friday.

NUJ Assistant General Secretary Séamus Dooley described it as "a victory for Trevor and Barry, for the NUJ and for press freedom".

Conservative MP and former Brexit Secretary David Davis was among those at the court supporting the two journalists on Friday.

He was also at an earlier hearing.

Simon Byrne was appointed as the new chief constable of the PSNI earlier this month, and will take up his position some time after George Hamilton retires next month.

Mr Birney and Mr McCaffrey remain on bail under live police investigation.

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