Online conspiracy theorists are claiming police are trying to shield informers or even paramilitaries by redacting case data
Secret files redacted by detectives investigating the death of Belfast teenager Noah Donohoe in 2020 are believed to show no police agent or loyalist paramilitary was involved in his disappearance, the Sunday Independent understands.
A raft of recent online conspiracy theories allege that the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) is protecting informers and even loyalists paramilitaries by not releasing specific files related to the death of the 14-year-old whose naked body was discovered in a storm drain in June 2020, six days after going missing.
A postmortem found the teen had died from drowning.
Further claims on social media state that Noah was killed, but the files which have been seen by the PSNI, the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) and the coroner are understood to state there is no criminal element to the tragedy.
Specifically, detectives do not believe he died as a result of foul play, according to a number of sources familiar with the case.
It is also understood the reason Northern Ireland Secretary of State Shailesh Vara signed off on a Public Interest Immunity (PII) certificate last week to withhold information was much more simplistic, according to those with knowledge of the files.
The first folder redacted contains intelligence documents, the second is an overview of all police actions, investigative lines of inquiry and intelligence, and the third contains officers’ notebooks, notes from conferences held by officers at the time and maps of the search areas.
The accusation by those pushing falsehoods on social media is that blocking this information is all part of a conspiracy by the authorities, the state and sections of the mainstream media.
But according to a source, the intelligence documents are redacted to protect intelligence reference numbers and to safeguard those who have given information in case the contents reveal the identity of a sensitive source.
The PSNI was contacted by the Sunday Independent and asked to detail the PII contents, but it declined, stating its position “remains the same”.
“The coroner currently owns this investigation as a coronial inquest, therefore we cannot add anything further at this time,” said a PSNI spokeswoman who pointed to a meeting of the Policing Board in March when the PII was first discussed.
At that meeting Assistant Chief Constable Mark McEwan told members about the possible PII application.
“I want to put on record the fact that all of us involved in this investigation are fully and continually cognisant of the fact that, at its heart, this is a case involving the death of a child, and a mother who has lost her son, in incredibly tragic circumstances," he said.
“No one within the team, or who has had any involvement with this investigation, has any desire to try and prevent the family from getting answers about what happened."
Sensitive material that attracts PII undergoes a stringent process.
Firstly, Chief Constable Simon Byrne must assess the suggested redactions and perform a balancing act of the redactions to ensure these are legal, proportionate, and necessary.
Then he will issue a signed letter on approval of the redactions and the matter is then referred to the Secretary of State who will scrutinise and perform the same balancing act of the redactions. If agreed, he will issue a ministerial certificate.
The material is then provided to the coroner for his or her approval.
The decision to redact specific details has prompted criticism from the Donohoe family and their supporters.
There is a protest rally scheduled to take place outside city hall next weekend where supporters of the Donohoes will call for the Northern Secretary to release the files.
During the Policing Board meeting in March, Mr McEwan referred to redactions to take into account the European Convention on Human Rights article two on the right to life and article eight on privacy. These redactions are not subject of PII but are made in case the information creates a risk to someone’s life.
This can include details such as names, dates of birth, addresses or phone numbers of people who have helped the police.
This is standard practice for the PSNI as it also protects informers.
Unique reference numbers have also been redacted for use within the internal PSNI computer system as part of national practice in case the system is ever compromised.
The second file relating to tasks and lines of inquiry has been redacted to protect the methodology and, in this case, the technical software programs that have been used to examine Noah’s devices, such as his mobile phone. The name of the software has been censored so criminals do not see what the PSNI use to retrieve information.
Crucially, nothing else has been redacted within the intelligence documents.
Mr McEwan told the Policing Board meeting that the PSNI is “working very closely with the coroner” and spoke of the “misconception” around the case on social media.
“There is a belief that we are seeking to remove those three files in their entirety and in some way keep them hidden from the family. This couldn’t be further from the truth.”
The coroner is to hold a full inquest at a later date.