Police drop case against Northern Ireland documentary makers

BELFAST (Reuters) - British police on Monday announced they had dropped their case against two Northern Ireland journalists whose arrest last year over the alleged theft of documents used in a documentary sparked condemnation from rights groups.

Barry McCaffrey and Trevor Birney were briefly arrested in August over the alleged theft of documents from the police ombudsman that were used in a documentary that alleged police collusion in the 1994 murder of six Catholic soccer fans.

Amnesty International in a statement described the decision by British police to drop the case as “a victory for press freedom.”

The 2017 documentary “No Stone Unturned” named a Protestant paramilitary gunman it said police believed shot six fans in one of the most notorious episodes of Northern Ireland’s “Troubles”.

It also detailed alleged police collusion, which a 2016 report by the Northern Ireland police ombudsman said was a significant feature in the killings. No one has been prosecuted for the killings.

In all over 3,600 people died during the 30-year armed conflict between Catholic Irish nationalists seeking a united Ireland, the British armed forces and pro-British loyalist paramilitaries who wanted to keep Northern Ireland British.

Colleagues and rights activists said the two journalists were arrested for doing their jobs, a charge the police denied.

“If they’d lost, every investigative reporter in the UK would have been living in fear of a dawn raid by the police,” Amnesty International’s Northern Ireland Programme Director Patrick Corrigan said in a statement.

A lawyer for the pair, John Finucane, said the two had been “grievously wronged.”

Mike Barton, chief constable of England’s Durham Constabulary which took the case on behalf of Northern Ireland colleagues, said it had decided not to progress the investigation against the pair following the outcome of a High Court judicial review last week.

But he added that said other strands of the investigation into the alleged theft or unlawful leaking of sensitive documents would continue.

The Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland George Hamilton said the suspected theft or unlawful leaking was a serious matter that the police were obliged to investigate.

But he also said he was aware the investigation had caused concern for families of the killings “something none of us would ever have wished to do.”

On June 18, 1994, Protestant paramilitary gunmen entered the Heights Bar in the village of Loughinisland and opened fire indiscriminately on customers watching Ireland play Italy in a televised World Cup match. Six were killed, including 87-year-old Barney Greene, one of the oldest victims in the “Troubles”.

Among the failings identified in the 2016 Police Ombudsman report was that police informants at the most senior level within armed Loyalist groups were involved in the importation of arms used in at least 70 murders and attempted murders, including the Loughinisland killings.

Reporting by Amanda Ferguson; Writing by Conor Humphries; Editing by Lisa Shumaker