by Denzil McDaniel 

When journalists Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey were being grilled for hours in a police station throughout Friday, I’m sure they were not thinking about Roman poets or Greek philosophers.

But as the dust settled this week and the significance of events dawned, a Latin phrase came to my mind: “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes,” written by Jevenal a couple of thousand years ago. It means “Who will guard the guards themselves,” and the idea was also explored by Plato, who is associated with the need to speak truth to power.

So, it’s a centuries-old question that when we give authority and power to people to order our society, we need to ask who watches over them? Who keeps them clean and honest?

In a modern so-called democracy, where official checks and balances often mean the system regulating itself, we highlight the value of a robust free press. But the establishment speaks out of both sides of its mouth by lauding the virtue of a free press and then undermining it. (Note Jeremy Hunt, the British Foreign Secretary tweeting about raising concerns over the arrest of journalists abroad.)

Make no mistake, Friday’s arrest of Birney and McCaffrey was nothing more or less than a crude attack on the personal lives and work of two journalists who exposed an uncomfortable truth.

“The press” is a catch-all term for all forms of reporting, from the trivial to the perceptively good analysis; but the most important in holding wrongdoing to account and letting the public know about things that others would prefer hidden is investigative journalism. There is a great tradition of it and many fine examples.

“No Stone Unturned” is a great example of it at its best. As much as the Alex Gibney film focused specifically in getting the truth of the brutal murders of six innocent Catholics watching World Cup football in a bar in 1994, the production was disturbing in its analysis of the depths to which the Northern Ireland sank in the morality of agents of the State involved in the deaths of its own citizens. The morality of compromises which a democratic society made in its use of informers to infiltrate ruthless paramilitary organisations is examined responsibly, and the film’s examination of the system allowing its informers to kill to protect them is disturbing.

I would suggest you watch the film. It is a fine and extremely important piece of work. It will make you feel uncomfortable, At least it should.

At the heart of this story, we must never forget, are the families of the six innocent men gunned down in June 1994. Like many families in Northern Ireland on both sides of the divide who were victims of decades of bloodlust, they were denied the truth for 22 years, even when officialdom supposedly reviewed the investigation in the original Ombudsman’s report.

“All we wanted was the truth” one family member told the film.

What emerges in the film is a shocking trail. What did the RUC Special Branch know in advance of the UVF operation, the opportunities squandered to gather a goldmine of evidence and question known suspects properly after the murders. Evidence and statements destroyed. Deeply worrying

links between members of the security services and members of the UVF. A reluctance, described as a steadfast refusal, by a senior investigating officer to co-operate in reviewing the case.

And perhaps most damning of all, the film makers were able to identify three people allegedly involved in the operation. Remarkably, it would seem that police knew the suspects thanks to the information sent by the wife of one of them. None of them were charged.

The identification of these men in the film has proved controversial; the journalists were able to do it through painstaking and clever work in cross-referencing names with other documents. Plus a lucky break, with a copy of an official document. In the film Barry McCaffrey makes it clear that a copy of the document arrived in the post, and he “still doesn’t know to this day what pricked somebody’s conscience.”

It would seem to be this issue which led to the heavy-handed arrests of the two men on Friday.

One has to be careful as this is a live investigation and we will see where it goes; but leaking COPIES of documents of information is a time-honoured and legitimate part of investigative journalism. It’s no coincidence that of all the journalists who ever received information anonymously, the two arrested were those who exposed worrying aspects of the links between elements with the police and loyalist killers.

I’m sure somebody will correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think anyone has challenged the substantive facts of the film, rather the focus is on the source of the document. And indeed, the damning report by the Ombudsman was challenged on procedure and his power to accuse police of “collusion” without affording certain officers the opportunity to respond.

Predictably in Northern Ireland, the response veers into whataboutery; so it’s important to reiterate that all families deserve the truth. In my home town of Enniskillen, I have never stopped looking for information about the 1987 bombing and believe that serious questions still remain about those events, including the role of the authorities.

I know both Barry McCaffrey and Trevor Birney and know them to be men of impeccable integrity who worked tirelessly and fearlessly over a long period of time on this film. Readers will know that I have been a close personal friend of Trevor for many years, and saw his passion for working to get the truth for families such as those children who died in Northern Ireland hospitals in the hyponatraemia inquiry. His work is detailed and responsible and he agonises over many decisions, and takes tough ones honourably and for the right motives.

“Real journalists,” said John Pilger, “are agents of the people”.

It is gratifying to see the response from journalists, film makers and supporters around the world in support of the two men; and indeed the journalists themselves are not only emboldened by that but appear determined that they will renew their efforts in investigations to shine a light in dark corners of injustice.

Holding journalists in police stations doesn’t augur well for the search for truth in examining the legacy of our troubled past.

Yet, UVF killers and members of the security forces who let down society remain beyond official scrutiny.

While Birney and McCaffrey faced hours of questioning on Friday, there are more serious questions for the Chief Constable. What is being done about the array of information the PSNI holds about Loughinisland, for example? At what level was the investigation into journalists approved?

And in a wider question, what damage has been done by the stunt to the PSNI (forget the attempted veneer of independence in bringing in Durham Police). At a time when concern is being expressed at the reducing numbers from the Catholic and Nationalist communities entering the PSNI, how will the perception of covering the tracks of police misdemeanours of the past help?

And indeed, how does this fit in to the seemingly reducing commitment to the stalled “new Northern Ireland”?

A vital element in any free and open society is accountability, and events over the last week do not encourage us to believe anybody who is “watching the watchmen” will be respected but rather attacked.