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What has led to two Belfast journalists looking into the Loughinisland killings getting arrested?

The short answer is… we don’t know.

Image: Liam McBurney

ON 31 AUGUST, two Belfast journalists were arrested, and their homes were searched.

The Durham Constabulary, assisted by members of the PSNI, carried out the searches in Belfast based on suspicion of theft, seizing a number of documents and computer equipment. The men were then questioned at Musgrave Police Station about the alleged theft.

The two journalists are accomplished: the first is the award-winning investigative reporter Barry McCaffrey, who was given the overall award in the Attorney General’s Justice Media Awards in 2013. He’s written extensively about the 2004 Northern Bank heist in Belfast, solitary confinement in Northern Irish prisons – and the Loughinisland massacre.

The second man arrested was Trevor Birney, who’s an award-winning producer and director. He was co-producer on the Oscar-shortlisted documentary, Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence In The House Of God, which follows the first known protest against clerical sex abuse in the US by four deaf men.

The two journalists had worked together on No Stone Unturned, a “chilling” documentary about the murders at the Loughinisland pub in 1994.

On 18 June of that year, people had gathered in a small pub The Heights Bar in the village of Loughinisland, Co Down to watch the Republic of Ireland play against Italy in the World Cup.

During that night, members of the loyalist paramilitary group the UVF burst in and opened fire, killing six civilians and wounding five. The group later claimed the attack was retaliation for the killing of UVF members.

No one has ever been charged with the killings.

In November 2017, McCaffrey and Birney’s documentary was released and claims were made in it based on a 2016 report and “secret” documents from the Police Ombudsman Dr Michael Maguire’s office.

Although the journalists were released the day after they were arrested without charge, they are still to face further questioning which keeps the threat of possible charges alive.

Speaking to the press upon his release, McCaffrey said the arrests were “an attack on the press”. He added:

It’s us today, tomorrow it could be you. 

2016 report

In September 2016, the Press Ombudsman published a damning report that claimed collusion between British police and paramilitaries was a “significant factor” in the Loughinisland killings.

Police Ombudsman Maguire said detectives failed to share information with colleagues about the “small but ruthless” gang suspected of involvement in the killings, as they were informants at the time.

In the 160-page report, Maguire said police had no direct intelligence about the attack in the Heights Bar, but that the murders could have been prevented if information had been shared.

When viewed collectively, I have no hesitation in saying collusion was a significant feature of the Loughinisland murders.

Maguire accused police of turning a blind eye to the activities of pro-British paramilitaries, including gun-running, to protect informants within their ranks. 

The latest

Loughinisland Massacre McCaffrey and Birney listen to NUJ Secretary Seamus Dooley. Source: PA Wire/PA Images

This week, Seamus Dooley of the the National Union of Journalists asked the Tánaiste Simon Coveney to raise the issue of the arrests with the UK government.

This comes after Irish Times journalist Susan McKay asked the Press Ombudsman whether the office had filed a complaint about the missing documents. Maguire replied to say that: “We did not make a complaint of theft”.

“The unequivocal statement from Dr Michael Maguire’s office that they did not make a
complaint of theft undermines the actions of Durham police and the PSNI,” Dooley said.

He’s calling for the threat of prosecution to be lifted, saying that it was going to have a “chilling” effect on investigative journalism.

The letter adds:

The context of this statement is important: two journalists were arrested, and the offices of a film production company raided on the basis of a warrant which the NUJ believes was granted in entirely unacceptable circumstances.
Two of our members were humiliated by very public arrests amid a blaze of publicity, even though they were at all times available for questioning. The PSNI could simply have sought an appointment at a local police station…
If there was no complaint, why were these journalists arrested?

In a way, it’s already having an effect. In a comprehensive piece by McKay, McCaffrey said that police took away confidential documents that weren’t linked to Loughinisland.

“I had to go and tell people who had trusted me with sensitive information. I felt ashamed. Why would anyone feel safe coming to me now?”

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