A journalist arrested over the alleged theft of a document that appeared in his film on a notorious Troubles massacre had branded the ongoing investigation a “complete farce”.
Trevor Birney heavily criticised the police as he and fellow documentary maker Barry McCaffrey were bailed from custody after failing to get the probe halted.
The award-winning reporters were arrested in August over the alleged theft of confidential material from the offices of Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland Dr Michael Maguire.
It is alleged the material appeared in their No Stone Unturned film on the 1994 loyalist paramilitary massacre of six Catholic men in the Co Down village of Loughinisland.
The reporters returned for pre-arranged meetings with officers in Belfast on Friday, during which their lawyers argued that the investigation should be stopped.
That bid came after Dr Maguire’s office denied ever making a complaint of theft against the men.
Police rejected the application on Friday, bailing the men to return to face further questions on March 1 next year.
“Ultimately I think that today has just been a complete farce,” Mr Birney said outside Musgrave Street PSNI station.
“I think this is quite clearly punitive and an attempt to try to restrict both myself and Barry and the work that we are trying to do and I think it’s just been another very frustrating day, not only for ourselves but for all our colleagues and for those we are trying to work for.”
Six men were killed when Ulster Volunteer Force gunmen opened fire inside the Heights Bar in Loughinisland in June 1994.
The victims were football fans who had gathered to watch the Republic of Ireland play in the World Cup.
The 2017 documentary by Mr Birney and Mr McCaffrey broke new ground by publicly naming those it said were suspects.
No one has ever been convicted for the killings.
In a landmark report in 2016, Dr Maguire concluded that the security forces colluded with the Loughinisland killers.
The PSNI, concerned about conflict of interest issues, asked Durham Constabulary to probe the alleged theft of the document after the film was released last year.
Durham’s chief constable Mike Barton and the Ombudsman are currently at odds over whether a crime was actually reported to police.
The Ombudsman’s office has denied making a “complaint of theft” to the PSNI.
Mr Barton has rejected the assertion, insisting a report was made by the Ombudsman’s office, followed up by a “written statement of complaint by a member of their senior management team”.
The journalists were released after being questioned for 14 hours in August to return to police custody on Friday.
They were applauded by a crowd of around 60 journalists who gathered to show solidarity as they arrived at the Musgrave Street station in the city centre.
The men emerged three hours later.
Outside, Mr McCaffrey questioned why no Durham Police officers were involved in the meetings, despite the force being supposedly in charge of the investigation.
Mr Birney said he and his colleague had been overwhelmed by the support.
“Ultimately this is all about the Loughinisland families,” he added.
“This really isn’t about us, but I think this farce today has just added to their grief and added to their concern that they are like corks on the ocean being bobbed about by police forces both here and in Durham.”
His solicitor Niall Murphy claimed the probe was motivated by “paranoid hysteria” among police commanders.
“Remarkably police have decided to continue with this farcical investigation,” he said.
“They have refused to take cognisance of the fact that there is no complaint.
“We have made representations that it is crystal clear that no offence has taken place and repeated the submission that the only investigation that should arise from the film No Stone Unturned is the murder of six men.”
The lawyer said he had expected the case to be dropped on Friday.
“This is a malicious farce conditioned by a paranoid hysteria in the senior ranks of the police,” said Mr Murphy.
“I regret to say I’m not surprised.
“The police approach here has been conditioned by an intention to protect their own intelligence agenda and that has been sustained again today by the nonsensical continuation of bail for two professional journalists doing their best and presenting as exemplars of the local profession.”
Ahead of the men entering the police station, Seamus Dooley, secretary of the Irish NUJ, urged detectives to “stop fishing” and instead catch the Loughinisland killers.
Afterwards, he branded the continuation of the probe a “travesty” and a “game changer”.
“It is a gross injustice,” he said.
“Facing into Christmas and the first quarter of 2019 with these restrictive bail requirements is unacceptable and there is now an obligation on the journalistic community, not just nationally but internationally, to renew our campaign.”
Mr Dooley also called for the Irish government to object to the situation.
“No journalist wants to be the centre of news but we’re now forced into the situation where those who have raised the questions are punished for doing so,” he said.