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Ombudsman denial sparks demand for lifting of prosecution threat against journalists

8 November 2018

The National Union of Journalists has demanded that the threat of prosecution against journalists Barry McCaffrey and Trevor Birney be lifted following confirmation by the Police Ombudsman of Northern Ireland that he had not made a complaint to the police over the theft of a document from his office.

NUJ members Barry McCaffrey and Trevor Birney were released on bail on Friday 31 August and are due to return to Musgrave Street police station, Belfast, this month but have not been charged with any offences.

Following their arrest Durham Constabulary said: “Officials from Police Ombudsman of NI reported the theft to the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) who in turn asked Durham Constabulary to conduct an independent investigation.” Journalist Susan McKay investigated the circumstances surrounding the arrests and in her report in today’s Irish Times she quotes a spokesman for Dr Michael Maguire as saying, “We did not make a complaint of theft”. Séamus Dooley, Irish Secretary, National Union of Journalists, said the statement removed the central plank of allegations against the journalists. He said:

“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. The threat of prosecution should be lifted, and a full explanation given to Barry and Trevor. 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.

“As the Irish Times report points out material, including a child’s homework, was seized and the work tools of both journalists – laptops, computers and mobile phones, remain in the possession of the PSNI. Severe travel limitations have been placed on Barry and Trevor: they have, for example, to give three days’ notice to the PSNI when visiting their union official in Dublin. Until now there was a clear understanding that the arrests followed a formal complaint of theft by the ombudsman. If there was no complaint, why were these journalists arrested?
"I would also ask why the Police Ombudsman has remained silent for over two months while journalists have had their human rights compromised and their ability to work undermined due to police action based on an alleged complaint by his office. We are calling on An Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs to raise this case with the Northern Ireland Secretary as a matter of urgency. This is a matter of the utmost seriousness and today’s revelations cannot be ignored. Neither the Irish or British governments should hide behind a flawed process now shown to be based on a false claim.”

There are two NUJ screenings, with Trevor and Barry, of the documentary No Stone Unturned in Dublin on Monday 12 November and London on Thursday 6 December.

Tags: , trevor birney, barry mccaffrey, no stone unturned, journalists arrested, Police Ombudsman of Northern Ireland, Durham Constabulary, Police Service of Northern Ireland, PSNI, protection of sources