A former loyalist prisoner has lost his latest legal bid to stop police accessing interviews he gave to an American university project — but the tapes are still to remain under lock and key.
Judges at the Court of Appeal on Friday rejected Winston “Winkie” Rea’s claims that the material should not be handed over to detectives investigating murder and other paramilitary crimes because it would breach his right to privacy.
However, they also ordered the Boston College recordings should not be disclosed pending the outcome of a planned Supreme Court challenge to their decision.
The tapes will remain in secure storage at the Royal Courts of Justice in Belfast until Rea’s final legal options are exhausted.
PSNI detectives had been in court ready to take possession of them in the same bag in which they were brought back from the United States.
Rea 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-ten 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 seventies to the late nineties.
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.
Earlier this month a High Court judge 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 appeal hearing 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 agreed to lift the injunction so that PSNI officers travelling back from Boston could bring the unopened tapes with them.
The material was to be deposited with the American Consulate and remain on American territory until a decision is given in the appeal.
Those arrangements were then changed so that the sealed container was taken to be guarded by senior officers at the courts.
Delivering judgment in the appeal on Friday, Lord Justice Coghlin said: “Even on the assumption that the issue of the International Letter of Request may have infringed the applicant’s right to privacy, we are entirely satisfied that any such interference was in accordance with law and necessary in the interests of prevention of crime.
“Accordingly, the application will be dismissed.”
Following the verdict Rea’s barrister, Ronan Lavery QC, confirmed plans to go to the Supreme Court in London and sought an order for the tapes to remain out of police hands until then.
Resisting his application counsel for the PSNI, Tony McGleenan QC, argued that it would further delay efforts to solve serious crime.
He said: “The detectives are ready in the building to receive the tapes.”
Although Lord Justice Coghlin acknowledged there are victims seeking a resolution, he ruled that the recordings should not be handed over yet.
“There will be an order that the materials are not disclosed to the PSNI, and be kept where they are at the minute in a secure place in this building.”