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TO misquote Van Morrison, I never thought there’d be days like this.
Sitting in the crowded Garrick Bar, just a stone’s throw from Belfast’s Courts of Justice on Friday it stuck me that trade union activism can lead one down some very strange paths and in some odd company.
Tory MP David Davis had just entered the bar having stood in solidarity outside the court with the newly elected Sinn Fein Lord Mayor of Belfast John Finucane, solicitor, as he left the Appeals Court with NUJ member Barry McCaffrey.
McCaffrey and his colleague Trevor Birney had won their judicial appeal against the PSNI and Durham Constabulary. In the shadow of the austere courts complex they were reliving the ordeal of nine months on police bail but also celebrating the success of a great campaign.
Last August their homes had been raided on warrants granted to the two police forces and the journalists were arrested, an act deemed by the Lord Chief Justice “inappropriate.”
Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan was unambiguous in his judgement.
The reporters had acted properly in following the instructions of their trade union, he said, throwing the book at the police for the manner in which they had applied for an ex parte order without regard to the specific professional obligations of journalists or the rights contained under Article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights.
The work of Birney and McCaffrey in their groundbreaking documentary No Stone Unturned helped focus attention on the police failures in investigating the 1994 massacre at Loughlinsland when paramilitaries burst into a pub of mostly Catholics watching a World Cup football match.
It produced shocking evidence of police collusion and identified those responsible for the murder by the UVF of Adrian Rogan, Malcolm Jenkinson,, Barney Green, Dan McCreanor, Patrick O’Hare and Eamon Byrne. We should never forget their names.
The official response was to go after the messengers. For nine months the threat of prosecution has unfairly hung over our members.
On Monday evening they were advised by their legal teams that the PSNI and Durham Constabulary were dropping their investigation into allegations of criminal behaviour against them.
It is important to remember that no evidence of criminality was ever produced yet two journalists of acknowledged integrity have had their professional lives put on hold by the actions of police forces whose motivation was at the very least questionable.
On the night of Monday June 3 the Chief Constable of Durham police Mike Barton declared: “At all times, my officers have acted in good faith, within the law and followed due process. We do, however, accept and respect the decision of the High Court last week.”
Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan said he had found the arrests “inappropriate.” He went one step further.
The work of journalists, he declared, is essential in holding the state to account, “particularly in a society like ours where confidence in the institutions is so important.” On several occasions he referenced the right of the two journalists to adhere to the NUJ Code of Conduct and to follow the advice of their union to take all steps available to them to protect their confidential sources of information.
Why did the PSNI and Durham Constabulary not make an appointment to meet Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey, with their legal representatives if necessary?
It’s a matter of record that the police were aware in advance of the film.
In arresting McCaffrey and Birney, they knew well that the journalists would not reveal confidential sources of information.
So, what was this all about?
Many questions remain unanswered and the NUJ wants an independent external investigation into the circumstances of the arrests and the subject actions of the police.
There is a role too for the North’s Policing Board in examining the reason for a costly police frolic with devastating consequences for two workers and for the already traumatised bereaved families of Loughlinisland.
The heavy-handed tactics of the police would suggest that this was an attempt to make an example of two journalists, to stifle investigative journalism.
If so, it has failed spectacularly and the High Court vindication can only serve to strengthen the resolve of Northern Ireland journalists to continue to seek the truth.
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