Durham police chief ‘stands corrected’ over arrest of journalists

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The head of Durham Police has said he “stands corrected” about the law after search warrants against two journalists were quashed.

Chief Constable Mike Barton made the comment while appearing at a meeting of the Northern Ireland Policing Board which examined the arrest of journalists Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey.

Last week the Lord Chief Justice ruled search warrants used by police had been “inappropriate”.

Loughinisland Massacre
Journalists Barry McCaffrey (left) and Trevor Birney were arrested on suspicion of the theft of confidential materials from the Police Ombudsman’s Office. (PA) 

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 Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) asked Durham Constabulary to investigate the alleged theft.

Mr Barton says he has changed his mind on the law.

Police Ombudsman
Mike Barton (left) and George Hamilton speak at a public meeting of the Policing Board in Belfast about the controversial arrest of investigative journalists Barry McCaffrey and Trevor Birney. (Michael Cooper/PA)

“I have now changed my mind on what the law is, what’s interesting though, we’ve got to wait until we see the written judgment from the Lord Chief Justice.”

Mr Barton added: “It was a county court judge that decided we could have the warrant.”

Sinn Fein MLA and Policing Board member Gerry Kelly asked Mr Barton whether he would apologise to the two journalists.

Mr Barton said: “I apologise unreservedly when we do things that further inflicts distress on families and I apologise unreservedly.”

PSNI Chief Constable George Hamilton revealed the current operational costs to both Durham Constabulary and the PSNI is in the region of £325,000 and set to be higher.

“Clearly in an age of shrinking budgets, I could have used that on other things but actually this investigation needed to be done,” he said.

Mr Hamilton stood by his decision to investigate.

“The theft of documents containing information that may, in fact are likely to, endanger life of citizens is a serious matter of which police officers are obliged to investigate.

“We do not have the choice of simply ignoring an issue because it is unpleasant, uncomfortable or too difficult, or will result in bad publicity.

“We must go where the evidence takes us but, in doing so, it is right and proper that we should be, and expect to be, held to account for our actions, and therefore I am grateful for the opportunity to answer the question in public.”

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 in 1994.

Members of the Loughinisland families also attended the Policing Board meeting.

Moira Casement, niece of Barney Green, 87, the oldest of the six men killed at the Heights Bar, said the £325,000 spent on investigating the alleged document theft would have been “better spent” on efforts to bring the killers to justice.

“I think that money would have been better spent in investigating the perpetrators of the murder of six innocent men 25 years ago, and the fact that that money was spent to hound journalism and in retrospect to affect us as families, surely to goodness, there is something wrong in the system,” she said, speaking outside the meeting.

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