Fermanagh actor Adrian Dunbar, acclaimed for his role in Line of Duty, has voiced his support for former Impartial Reporter journalist Trevor Birney and his colleague Barry McCaffrey, who were reportedly subjected to covert surveillance by police in 2019.

The covert surveillance allegedly took place following raids on their residences and workplaces. This revelation emerged during a tribunal this week, where it was disclosed that the police initiated a secret surveillance operation after arresting the journalists to unveil one of their sources.

"They were bugged, the police raided them, they were taken out of their homes in the morning, and once the programme went out, there was a piece of information in it where the police didn’t know where they got it from, and as far as I know – this is my understanding of the facts," said Mr. Dunbar during an appearance on LBC's Tonight with Andrew Marr.

Mr. McCaffrey complained to the Investigatory Powers Tribunal in 2019, triggered by his and Mr. Birney's arrest over the suspected theft of files from the Police Ombudsman's Office in 2018. The journalists were working on the documentary 'No Stone Unturned,' investigating the Loughinisland massacre, where six Catholic men were fatally shot by loyalists in a Co. Down pub.

In response to Mr. Marr's remark characterising the situation as a real-life case for AC12 [fictional anti-corruption unit in Line of Duty], Mr. Dunbar humorously contemplated joining the scenario with a placard. "Maybe I should get down there with a placard."

The tribunal, which got underway last week, is examining allegations that the award-winning journalists were subject to unlawful covert surveillance by UK authorities.

It heard a series of new revelations as the case opened on Wednesday, including allegations that the Met Police illegally obtained Mr. McCaffrey’s phone data in 2011 – data that police in Northern Ireland subsequently secured seven years later as part of another probe into the reporter’s work.

The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), citing a conflict of interest, asked Durham Police to lead the investigation into the inclusion of the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland document in the No Stone Unturned film.

The PSNI later unreservedly apologised for how the men had been treated and agreed to pay £875,000 in damages to the journalists and the film company behind the documentary.

The settlement came after a court ruled that the warrants used by police to search the journalists’ homes and Fine Point Films had been “inappropriate”.

In 2019, M. Birney and Mr McCaffrey lodged a complaint with the Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT) asking it to establish whether there had been any unlawful surveillance of them.

The tribunal case began in London on Wednesday and was due to sit for two days but the hearing was adjourned before lunch on the opening day due to the late disclosure of police documents.

One of those documents was a directed surveillance authorisation approved by former PSNI chief constable George Hamilton.

This gave the green light for covert surveillance of an individual whom officers suspected of being the source of the leaked document from the Police Ombudsman’s office.

Prior to adjourning the case, tribunal chair Lord Justice Singh invited counsel for the journalists to outline their cases in broad terms.

Ben Jaffey KC, representing Mr. McCaffrey, said the directed surveillance authorisation document, which he got first sight of at 7.30am on Wednesday, was key to the case.

“The nature of the operation is now pretty clear,” he said.

“It was to arrest the two journalists with the intention of releasing them the same day – the intention was not to ask any serious questions or because they needed to be interrogated under arrest. But because they wanted to create what is sometimes euphemistically called a disruption or a surprise.

“They would then be released at the end of the day and then aggressive covert attempts would be made to see if they got in contact with their source.

“The whole purpose of the operation was to unmask the journalistic source.”

The surveillance operation was conducted for two weeks before Mr Hamilton granted an application for it to be cancelled.

Mr. Jaffey set out a series of grounds challenging the legality of the surveillance authorisation. He disputed a police contention that the operation was not intrusive.

He said a reference to obtaining recorded audio indicated the strategy was to be intrusive.

The senior counsel said surveillance of that nature required approval of a judicial commission, not solely a chief constable.

Mr. Jaffey said the authorisation application was done at the request of the senior investigating officer, Darren Ellis of Durham Police.

He claimed the document contradicted Mr Ellis’s statement to the tribunal in which he said he was unsure whether a directed surveillance authorisation was progressed in the case.

During the hearing, Mr. Jaffey also questioned the legal basis for a police request to Apple for an emergency preservation order on Fine Point Films’ iCloud account following the arrest of the journalists.

The tribunal also heard that as part of the 2018 investigation, police “reinterrogated” phone data it requested from the Metropolitan Police in London related to Mr McCaffrey.

It emerged that the Met Police obtained Mr McCaffrey’s data in 2011 in another investigation aimed at revealing the identity of a source.

Mr. Jaffey said he and his client were only made aware of this revelation last Friday.

“We had no idea that communication data had been obtained in that operation,” he said.

The lawyer added: “It seems overwhelmingly likely that that communications data authorisation was unlawful.”

He claimed the PSNI’s subsequent move to source the data secured from the Met for the 2018 investigation was also unlawful.

Mr. McCaffrey had been investigating alleged police corruption around the time his data was accessed by the PSNI in 2013.

Mr. Jaffey said the PSNI had acknowledged that its actions in that case had been unlawful and the only matter for the tribunal to determine was the remedy.

“What happened there is that there was no prior authorisation and there was no attempt to apply the correct legal test,” he said.

The police forces represented at the hearing will respond to the applicants’ case when the substantive hearing resumes.

Mr. Jaffey criticised the late disclosure of police documents.

“This case is I’m afraid a shambles which is not ready for considered judicial determination at the moment,” he said.

Mr. Birney’s counsel Stephen Toal KC also expressed concern at the late disclosure.

“This is not the approach that is taken in Northern Ireland to matters of discovery and disclosure,” he said. “It is a shambles and it certainly is not indicative of how we usually do cases there.”

Lord Justice Singh, who was sitting on the tribunal panel alongside Lady Carmichael and senior barrister Stephen Shaw KC, told all legal parties in the case to agree “rigorous directions” to ensure the case could resume again without undue delay.

The respondents in the case are the PSNI, Durham Police, MI5, the Security Service Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) and several Government ministers.

Outside court, Mr. Birney and Mr McCaffrey expressed shock at the details that had emerged.

“I think it was stunning just to hear our counsel outlining just what has been going on since 2011,” Mr. Birney told reporters outside the Royal Courts of Justice in London.

“It is still somewhat shocking.”

Mr. McCaffrey said: “It’s shocking, but there’s still much more that we need to know – we still need answers.”

He added: “Three different police forces in the UK have been trawling journalists, every journalist in the UK should tonight be asking themselves was I one as well. Was it me?

“And they should be going to the IPT and asking and finding out have they been victims like Trevor and myself.”