McCaffrey, Birney and bobbies on the beat

Did George Hamilton give the thumbs-up to  the raids on the homes of  Barry McCaffrey and Trevor Birney? If so, it’s a good job he’s leaving (in both senses of that statement) and the next guy in the role of Chief Constable will need to whip off  his coat and get stuck into the Augean stables that the PSNI appear to have become.

MCaffrey and Birney were arrested for their part in creating the documentary No Stone Unturned,  which examines the police response to the killing of six innocent people in Loughinisland in 1994. Documents and computers belonging to them were seized as  the men were arrested.

Why? Why would a new police service act in such a grossly hammer-on-the-door fashion? Only those in charge of the operation (did they tell George Hamilton?) can answer that for sure. But it’d be reasonable to guess that it was an effort to encourager les autres – as a warning to other journalists who might have similar smart-arse ideas about probing police actions in the past. Because as you’ll know if you’ve seen No Stone Unturned , the claim is not simply that the RUC were lax or lazy in their investigation of the ghastly Loughinisland killing. The charge is that they worked with the killers and helped cover their traces.

As I wrote that last sentence, I felt for a moment as if I was back in 1994. Not because the RUC are seen as being guilty of collusion, but because the actions of the PSNI in this case suggest they want to continue the injustice that was done to the families of the victims back then.

Barry McCaffrey and Trevor Birney, the High Court judges have found, were treated unjustly and abominably, and the PSNI have been ordered to return all documents and computers to them.  But here’s a laugh. The BBC News website reports, with a straight face: “The police have given an undertaking not to examine  any of the documents and computer equipment pending the outcome of the legal action.”

And when you’ve finished guffawing, you may be sobered up by this from a lawyer for Mr Birney:

“This was the kind of operation associated more with a police state than with a liberal democracy that does have in place laws designed to protect investigative journalists and their sources from this kind of intrusion…An ulterior motive was to undermine journalists and whistleblowers from exposing misconduct of the police.”

Let’s face it: the police in Ireland north and south are in a parlous place. The south’s police force is headed by a man who worked closely with MI5 and MI6 when he was a member of the RUC, which clearly means he may well be sitting on information about killings during the Troubles that have not been investigated and he would be keen should not be investigated. Top of that killing list would probably be the Dublin and Monaghan bombings of 1974, in which thirty-four people died and for which no one has been found guilty. The north’s present police force seems intent on doing the kind of thing that resulted in the loss of public trust in the guardians of the law over forty years ago.

When I was at primary school, a classmate asked me if I knew what the letters R U C stood for. He then told me, using words that don’t belong in a family newspaper. Are we at the stage where youngsters  in school will be exploring alternatives for  the initials P S N I?  And are the guardians of the law deliberately trying to make this place a failed state?

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