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Saturday 9 December 2023 Dublin: 8°C
Press Freedom

Loughinisland journalists: It's still surreal to think we were arrested in Northern Ireland for a documentary

“Police officers were going through our computers, and taking documents that were completely unrelated to the film.”

Police Ombudsman Liam McBurney Investigative journalists Barry McCaffrey (left) and Trevor Birney carry returned documents in Belfast. Liam McBurney

TWO INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALISTS have said that they viewed the PSNI investigation into their research of the Loughinisland massacre as an “attack on press freedom”.

Barry McCaffrey and Trevor Birney were arrested and their homes, and offices were searched by police in relation to their documentary “No Stone Unturned”.

“It’s still surreal to be talking about being arrested in Northern Ireland 21 years after the Good Friday Agreement” for a documentary, Birney said on RTÉ’s Sunday with Miriam.

My eldest daughter is 18, this has become so much a part of our times and unfortunately for them with them going through exams and deciding what to do with their lives. What they want to do with their lives is to leave Belfast because of what’s happened to myself and Barry. It’s been terribly frustrating.

The documentary looks at the police investigation into the Loughinisland massacre in 1994. On that day, members of the loyalist paramilitary group the Ulster Volunteer Force entered the Heights Bar in Loughinisland and started shooting, as football fans watched the Republic of Ireland team play in the 1994 Fifa World Cup.

Six men were killed and five others were injured.

IndieWire / YouTube

The documentary received much attention as it revealed sensitive information contained in a report by the Police Ombudsman, and alleged State collusion in the killings.

In the wake of the documentary being released, the PSNI began an investigation into whether the documents had been stolen by the journalists, despite the Ombudsman stating several times that he had never reported any documents being stolen.

Speaking on RTÉ this morning, Birney said he still feels “very frustrated and angry” about it. “We were leaked documents, and the police investigated us for having stolen the documents – I still don’t understand why.”

The journalists were arrested, and later released on bail. While they were in prison.

On the day of our arrest, our offices were also being raided, and officers were going through our computers and notebooks and I said to my solicitor ‘Is there anything we can do?’ and he said ‘Well, you can take a judicial review’ because we believed that they were taking documents that were completely unrelated to the film.

They began a judicial review of the search warrants taken out of both men’s homes, and their offices. An injunction was then in place by 6pm that day that prevented police from looking at the materials seized from the office.

The documents included notebooks that related to an investigation into sex abuse in the Catholic Church, which the police had lifted.

Police Ombudsman Brian Lawless Barry McCaffrey and Trevor Birney speak outside the Royal Courts of Justice, after judges indicated they would quash police warrants to search their homes and office (31 May 2019). Brian Lawless

Three weeks ago, there was a hearing in the High Court in Belfast in which the Lord Chief Justice and two other judges sat for two and a half days and ruled that the police had acted “unlawfully and inappropriately”.

“Everything that we had done in terms of protecting our sources is exactly as we should have done,” Birney said. “We had always acted appropriately, which was a relief off our shoulders.”

Barry McCaffrey said that he hoped the documentary would be shown on terrestrial television on the island of Ireland, which hasn’t happened yet.

“It’s on Amazon Prime, and it’s been shown all over the world but one of our biggest regrets is that it hasn’t been shown on terrestrial TV in Northern Ireland or in the South.”

He said that if there are lessons to be learned, that it needs to be shown in that way here, and that that was a promise they had made to the Loughinisland families.

“Our hope is that it would be shown on national TV.”

“If there’s one good thing that has come out of this, it’s that the Lord Chief Justice’s ruling that will be sent down to the courts will reinforce and set in stone the rights of journalists to protect their sources and that journalists have a right to ask those awkward questions.

To us, that’s what this court case was about, it wasn’t about Loughinisland, it wasn’t about The Troubles – to us it was an attack on press freedom. It was the State saying that journalists don’t ask those awkward questions, cause if you do, you’ll end up in a police cell.

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