Controversy over Winston Rea interview tapes storage plans

Winston 'Winkie' Rea is appealing a failed bid to stop police from accessing his interviews
Winston 'Winkie' Rea is appealing a failed bid to stop police from accessing his interviews

Sealed tapes of interviews given by a former loyalist prisoner to a university project will not now be held on American territory in Belfast.

Senior judges had ordered that PSNI detectives could fly back from Boston with the recordings Winston “Winkie” Rea is battling to stop them from inspecting.

They directed that the testimonies must remain unopened and then be handed over to the US Consultate in Belfast until a decision is reached in the legal action.

But those conditions were varied due to difficulties in arranging to have the sealed container lodged with American representatives.

Instead, an amended order was made for the tapes to be taken to the Royal Courts of Justice in Belfast and put into secure storage there.

Rea’s lawyers expressed deep concern at the new plans which mean the recordings will no longer be on US soil.

In correspondence to the Crown Solicitors Office one of his legal representatives said: “We are not happy with the tapes being within the jurisdiction as this could lead to an abuse of process.”

Rea is appealing a failed High Court bid to prevent police investigating murder and other paramilitary crimes from accessing the tapes.

He was among dozens of loyalists and republicans who provided testimonies to Boston College 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-10 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, claimed a subpoena for his tapes is unlawful and unspecific.

During judicial review proceedings the court was told an investigation has been launched into serious crimes stretching from the 1070s to the late 1990s.

The alleged offences include murder, directing terrorism, membership of a proscribed organisation and robbery.

An international request for the tapes said police have information that Rea was a member of the Red Hand Commando whose interviews would assist investigations into those crimes.

Last Monday Mr Justice Treacy threw out his challenge after holding that the legal test for seeking the material had been met.

Following that verdict two PSNI detectives boarded a flight to Boston to collect the recordings.

But with their flight mid-Atlantic Rea’s legal team secured a last-minute order restraining any handover while they contested the ruling.

In the Court of Appeal on Friday counsel for the loyalist, argued that prosecuting authorities were acting on a hunch rather than any firm knowledge that the tapes contain information relevant to any investigation.

He also claimed the request, made under the Crime (International Co-operation) Act, breached Rea’s right to privacy under European law.

However, a barrister representing the Public Prosecution Service claimed Rea had no reasonable expectation of privacy around what he told the Boston researchers.

The three judges hearing the appeal reserved their decision until early this week.