Northern Ireland

Loughinisland: PSNI 'made huge error' in journalist raids

Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey with NUJ poster
Image caption Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey had mounted a legal challenge against the police raids

The PSNI Chief Constable, George Hamilton, is under renewed pressure to drop the police investigation into two Belfast journalists.

Two politicians who sit on the Northern Ireland Policing Board have criticised the police's handling of the case involving Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey.

The SDLP's Dolores Kelly said police "made a huge error of judgement".

Sinn Féin's Gerry Kelly has called for the investigation to be dropped.

Mr Birney and Mr McCaffrey were arrested last year by police investigating the alleged theft of documents from the Police Ombudsman's Office in Belfast. They were released on police bail while the investigation continues.

Their arrest followed the broadcast of a documentary they helped to make about the police handling of the Loughinisland killings when six Catholics were shot dead by the UVF in 1994.

"I think an apology is owed to these journalists," Mrs Kelly told BBC News NI.

"I think freedom of the press has to be protected and the chief constable has made a huge error of judgement.

Image caption Dolores Kelly said she hopes that the PSNI "will learn very quickly"

"There needs to be a serious rethink about the approach to this matter and I hope the PSNI will learn very quickly.

"The PSNI has got this badly wrong and has suffered reputational damage as a result."

Analysis: Mark Simpson, BBC Newsline reporter

All eyes are now on the next meeting of the Policing Board.

Police chiefs will come face to face with the politicians criticising them.

The meeting is not far away, Thursday 6 June. PSNI Chief Constable George Hamilton will face questions, along with the Chief Constable of Durham Constabulary, Mike Barton, whose force is leading the investigation.

Pressure is mounting on them to stop investigating the two journalists.

Undoubtedly, what happened in the High Court will force them to reassess the case.

However, at this stage, there is nothing to suggest the police are about do a U-turn.

On the day the journalists were arrested in August 2018, their homes and offices were searched by detectives. However, on Friday the police were told to hand back the material after the journalists challenged the legality of the raids in the High Court.

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

Conservative MP David Davis is supporting the two journalists, as is Amnesty International and the National Union of Journalists.

Mr Hamilton is due to answer questions about the investigation next Thursday at a meeting of the Policing Board.

The Chief Constable of Durham Constabulary, Mike Barton, will also be there. Durham Police were brought in last year to lead the investigation.

After the journalists won their case in the High Court over the legality of the searches, Durham police defended their actions.

Image copyright Durham Constabulary
Image caption Mike Barton is retiring this summer

Mr Barton said: "We followed due process when applying for the search warrants. A detailed application was presented to a County Court judge who granted the warrants.

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

Thousands of files containing millions of pages were seized from the homes and offices of the two journalists. It is not clear yet exactly when they will be returned.

Another hearing will take place at the High Court on Monday.

Image copyright Pacemaker
Image caption Chief Constable George Hamilton was appointed chief constable in June 2014

Mr Hamilton announced earlier this year he was retiring as chief constable and is expected to do so at the end of June.

A spokesperson for the Policing Board said there are "some serious questions around the circumstances and handling of this investigation".

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