Police seek loyalist's Boston College tapes in murder, attempted murder and robbery investigation
Police are seeking interviews a former loyalist prisoner gave to a US university project as part of investigations into murder, attempted murder and robbery, the High Court heard today.
A judge was told the force requires tapes of Winston "Winkie" Rea's account to Boston College in order to meet its legal duty to probe serious crimes spanning three decades.
Rea has issued proceedings in a bid to stop the PSNI obtaining the material.
His lawyers argue that a handover would be an unlawful intrusion on his privacy, based on no evidence of any wrongdoing on his part.
Two weeks ago he secured a temporary injunction as police were set to board a plane for America to get the tapes.
He was among dozens of loyalists and republicans who provided testimonies to researchers compiling an oral history of the Northern Ireland conflict.
Interviews were given on the understanding that tapes would not be made public until after their deaths.
But those assurances were dealt a blow in 2013 when detectives investigating the abduction and murder of Belfast mother-of-ten Jean McConville back in 1972 secured the transcripts of former IRA woman Dolours Price's account.
That material was handed over following court battles on both sides of the Atlantic.
Rea, a son-in-law of the late UVF leader Gusty Spence, is now seeking to judicially review the Public Prosecution Service (PPS)'s attempts to obtain his interviews.
He claims that a subpoena for the material is unlawful, unspecific and amounts to nothing more than a fishing exercise.
As the case was opened in full today his barrister claimed the police move was based only on a newspaper interview given by Rea and fellow loyalist William "Plum" Smith three years ago.
Ronan Lavery QC contended: "This material is so thin that anybody with access to a computer or the rumour mill might be able to put it together in a very shot period of time, based simply on belief."
The court heard how an international letter of request sent to US authorities details how Rea served an eight-year prison sentence in the 1970s.
Other details set out included allegations that he was a Red Hand Commando leader and acted as a personal security guard to Spence.
Mr Lavery said: "There's no dispute about the applicant's connection, if you like, with loyalist organisations, but whether one can draw anything more from that is another matter."
He claimed it was incorrectly stated that his client was part of a delegation who met with then British Prime Minister John Major in 1996.
Rea, described as being in poor health, was not present for the hearing.
But Smith, who did attended court, was said to have been among those who were at the meeting about loyalist prisoner issues.
During proceedings it was stressed that Rea has not been accused of committing any of the offences being probed.
But Peter Coll QC, for the PPS, argued that following the previous success in securing Boston tapes any claim to confidentiality on the loyalist's part "wasn't worth the paper it was written on".
He told the court the international request contained a clear suggestion that Rea was involved in an alleged murder conspiracy in 1989.
No further details of that incident were disclosed.
Referring to the overarching investigation, he said: "The PSNI have identified Mr Rea as a suspect."
Tony McGleenan QC, representing the Chief Constable, claimed there was "an air of unreality" about the legal action.
He contended that if crimes have been committed police have a statutory obligation to investigate.
"There are obvious reasonable grounds for suspecting offences have been committed," he said.
"Whether or not the applicant is the individual who has committed those, it's quite clear the police have active lines of inquiry in respect of murder, attempted murder and robbery."
Mr McGleenan stressed how the PSNI is seeking to advance inquiries into serious crime spanning three decades up to the late 1990s.
"Regardless of who committed these offences there are victims, there are those bereaved, and some of them have written to the court expressing an interest in the issue," he added.
Mr Justice Treacy will decide on Monday whether to grant leave for Rea to seek a judicial review.
Belfast Telegraph Digital