On Monday evening word came through that Durham Constabulary and the PSNI were dropping their nine-month investigation into journalists Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey over their film 'No Stone Unturned', a documentary which shone a light on the dark murders at Loughinisland in 1994.

Even now, it’s difficult to put a finger on what offence the two men were supposed to have committed, but after dragging their name through the mud for nine months, the sordid and shabby police operation came to an end as quickly as it had started when they were arrested in dawn raids in their homes last August.

One comment this week was that the police had “seen sense” at last.

But I’m not so sure they did. There’s very little about this case to which the word sense can be applied, and it seems to me that the police were only forced into the decision to end their investigation after listening to the top judge in the land completely gut their case last week.

Even in the face of a widespread international top-level campaign in support of the journalists, the police had stubbornly persisted until a judicial review taken by the journalists resulted in the Lord Chief Justice spelling out the unlawful and unjust nature of the police action. And even after calling off the witch hunt, the Chief Constables of Durham and Northern Ireland issued bland statements suggesting they’d done nothing wrong.

But there are many serious questions to be asked about this whole case.

Perhaps to understand how we got to this stage, it would be helpful to remind ourselves of some salient points in the timeline along the way. And at the forefront of our thinking we should remember six names. This week Barry McCaffrey tweeted: “Barney Green, Dan McCreanor, Adrian Rogan, Malcolm Jenkinson, Patsy O’Hare, Eamon Byrne - all that needs to be said.” They were the six men sitting watching a World Cup match in the Heights Bar, Loughinisland in 1994 when loyalist gunmen burst in and shot them dead.

For years, the innocent men’s families waited in vain for the authorities to fulfil the then Secretary of State, Sir Patrick Mayhew’s promise that the investigation would leave “no stone unturned” to find the killers.

After a couple of false starts, the first breakthrough came in 2016 when the Police Ombudsman, Michael Maguire, reported that he found “catastrophic failings” in the police investigation of the murders, and indeed that elements in the RUC had colluded with the UVF killers.

The journalist, Barry McCaffrey had been following the case and gathering information for some time. In fact, in 2011, McCaffrey received a package sent to him anonymously. It contained a leaked, unredacted copy of a previous report into the case.

McCaffrey and Birney linked up with respected American film maker Alex Gibney to make a documentary, which was released in the autumn of 2017. With painstaking and

clever investigative journalism, they were able to highlight some of the police failings, including those of a senior officer whom they tracked down to France, police links with loyalist killers; and indeed the name of the man accused of carrying out the shooting, unbelievably still living and working in the area.

Nobody was ever charged with any offence.

Surely, now, police would act, no?

They did. But not on the suspected terrorist.

On August 31 last year, at 7am Birney and McCaffrey were at their respective homes when the police knocked on their doors at dawn, backed up by a row of armed Land Rovers and dozens of armed officers. They were arrested, in Birney’s case in front of his wife and three young daughters, and the two men were taken to a police cell and questioned for 14 hours.

They had a search warrant and packed up and took away laptops, phones, whatever they could get their hands on, including Trevor’s primary school daughter’s little pink phone and another daughter’s USB stick with her GCSE coursework. Meanwhile, the company’s office in central Belfast was similarly raided and a mountain of material taken away, most of it nothing to do with the film.

Within an hour of the raids, the police had issued a statement publicising the arrests, and the hell of that morning has continued for nine months as the men have had to fight to have the black cloud over their name lifted.

The two men were eventually given bail, the conditions of which placed practical restrictions on their business.

There was talk of the leaked document being stolen, and a breach of the Official Secrets Act. But elements of the case descended into either farce or black irony. Accused of breaching the retired police officers security, Birney was able to point out they simply looked up his name in the French telephone directory.

And while the police had no difficulty in blackening the name of the two journalists, a note has emerged that a police officer was worried about the “lives of those being put in danger for merely having the misfortune of being involved in terrorist activities….”

The behaviour of the police towards Birney and McCaffrey in the last nine months has been variously described as outrageous, akin to a police state and indeed, the High Court last week ruled that the way the police obtained the search warrant was unlawful and the judge ordered the return of all their material. And he said and the journalists had “acted in a perfectly proper manner.”

In fact, it’s important to highlight the responsible way the journalists conducted themselves. They got a leaked copy of the document away back in 2011 but treated it confidentially and responsibly, “curated” it. They only used a small part of it which they considered relevant to their film and only then after some very serious reflection.

And here’s the thing. Six months before the film’s release, the journalists rang and made an appointment to meet Deputy Chief Constable Stephen Martin. At that meeting they

told him of their intention to name four suspects, but they asked if the police knew of any reason not to. The police said they already knew as they’d been informed by the Police Ombudsman.

This gave the police six months to carry out their own threat or risk assessment, or to warn the journalists not to name suspects, or indeed to seek an injunction to stop the film. They did none of this and allowed the film to go on release.

On August 10, someone somewhere at a high level within the PSNI took the decision to seek a search warrant, and they did it in secret without fully appraising a judge of the facts above, setting off a disturbing train of events.

It has to be said that the last nine months has put an immense personal strain on the two men and their families and friends. They have shown tremendous courage in standing up for their principles, not to mention the enormous financial risk that fighting in court has entailed which could have ruined them.

Yet despite a stinging rebuke for the police by the Lord Chief Justice, the Chief Constable of the PSNI George Hamilton thanked Durham for a “sensitive investigation” and the Chief Constable of Durham, Mike Barton said his officers “acted in good faith, within the law and followed due process.”

It doesn’t appear that the two top policemen consider anything wrong was done, so serious questions shout loudly?

Who took the decision to arrest the two journalists and seek a search warrant?

What was their motive? Was it a power struggle to put down the Police Ombudsman, particularly his critical findings of RUC collusion?

Who was the real target? The Ombudsman who reports police failings, the journalists who were seeking out truth, or the source of the leak? (The original judge had asked if the police were trying to “shoot one crow so that other crows wouldn’t land”.)

When they were applying for the original warrant, did they tell the County Court judge about the responsible steps the journalists had taken in meeting the police before the film’s release? Or did they deliberately mislead the judge? Did they even tell Durham Constabulary about the meeting?

If they strongly suspected the theft of a document, what did they base their suspicion on, considering the Ombudsman didn’t make a complaint about it being stolen?

How much did this whole thing cost the public purse?

And who holds the police to account on this, and every other matter?

If the police can get away with getting an unlawful search warrant and thereby intimidate those journalists with arrest and possible criminal charges, what confidence does that give us in policing?

The old Latin saying from historical times is “Quis custodiet ipsos custodies?” Or who will guard the guardians? In other words, who will hold to account those in positions of power?

As regards police here, it is supposed to be the Police Ombudsman and the Policing Board. We’ve seen dark forces try to undermine the Ombudsman, sometimes with well placed media briefings, and today we will see what the Policing Board is made of when Mike Barton and George Hamilton appear before them.

This case, in which two journalists of real integrity were caught up in a ridiculous maelstrom, reveals some serious concerns about accountability.

Questions remain.