If someone with Barra McGrory’s background and CV cannot be trusted to perform the duties of DPP fairly, we may as well hand the whole justice system to a UN commission of Finns, Norwegians and a few Daleks. What his glib critics disregard first is the freemasonry ( metaphorical term) of the legal profession across the divide which survived the Troubles and helped make him the right person at the right time for this high profile job. It’s also worth saying that all the top legal posts – chief justice, attorney general and director of public prosecutions are held by Catholics without the roof falling in or any charge of political bias sticking in how they do their jobs, McGrory included.
One of the better achievements of the Executive was one of the last planks to be put in place, the devolution of justice in 2010. It wasn’t easy. It took three years to agree following the St Andrews Agreement. An essential condition was Sinn Fein signing up to supporting the police and signing – with all the others – a reinforced pledge of office–
to uphold the rule of law based as it is on the fundamental principles of fairness, impartiality and democratic accountability, including support for policing and the courts as set out in paragraph 6 of the St Andrews Agreement;’‘We believe that the essential elements of support for law and order include endorsing fully the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the criminal justice system, actively encouraging everyone in the community to co-operate fully with the PSNI in tackling crime in all areas and actively supporting all the policing and criminal justice institutions, including the Policing Board.’
Over McGrory we are now in the novel position of seeing a law officer criticised by unionists for doing his job impartially.
Legacy issues are the elephant in the room. The British government has a role under national security and the local parties are deadlocked. Key elements of the justice system are of course independent of political control such as the judiciary the attorney general ( not a politician here, unlike GB/ England) and the director of public prosecutions. As the deadlock is highly political it has made life difficult for the independent justice system.
Northern Ireland is not alone in this. In GB politicians have become more vocal in criticising the operation of the system in ways which senior judges believe is now encroaches on their independence. Theresa May as Home Secretary fatuously caricatured a judicial ruling delaying a deportation on the grounds that looking after his cat was part of his right to a family life under the Human Rights Act she plainly loathes, because if its rooting in the European Convention on Human Rights.
Recently the Lord Thomas, the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales made an unprecedented direct attack on the justice secretary and Lord Chancellor Liz Truss for failing to observe her oath of office and defend judges from Daily Mail assault, when the paper described them as “enemies of the people” for ruling that Parliament should be able to vote on the terms of the Article 50 for leaving the EU.
Referring to the article 50 Brexit court case, he told the House of Lords constitution select committee Truss was “completely and utterly wrong” to say she could not criticise the media.
“There’s a difference between criticism and abuse,” Thomas said, “and I don’t think that’s understood.”
The same distinction can be made over the decisions of the NI director of public prosecutions Barra Magrory who has announced his resignation at the end of a five year term at a difficult time. But then all times are difficult here.
He was cut from a different cloth from his more anonymous predecessors who also operated in times of emergency and when human rights tests were less legally rigorous.
Not long after his appointment the Daily Mail again figures, when it called on him to be sacked because of his legal association with Gerry Adams
Confirming he was standing down from the role, Mr McGrory said the past had been an “unanticipated aspect” of the job.
“I wish the political architects of the peace process had dealt with legacy.”
Unionists called for his resignation after prosecutors reinstated attempted murder charges against ex-soldier Dennis Hutchings (75) over the 1974 shooting of John-Pat Cunningham.
Announcing his intention to step down in September, Mr McGrory said it was “absolutely not because of legacy”. However, sources close to Mr McGrory said he felt dealing with legacy issues had become “a nightmare”, and cited “personal abuse” he has received.
Mr McGrory said the absence of political agreement meant the issue would continue to cause problems. “Legacy is going to be very difficult for any prosecutor … that is the reality – it’s going to be difficult,” he said. “The reality is that the conflict would be relived in some senses and, in terms of the prosecution service’s place, it will have to deal with that.
The attacks on Barra McGrory are unwarranted. Instead of supporting due process and guarding his role as a political mediator, the secretary of state James Brokenshire adopted the domestic Conservative populist role. With crass ill-timing, he entered into the controversy over inquiries into army conduct and claimed there was “ an apparent “imbalance” that had led to a “disproportionate” focus on criminal inquiries involving former soldiers.
“I am clear the current system is not working and we are in danger of seeing the past rewritten,” he says.
The Cabinet minister’s admission will fuel urgent demands to end a series of police investigations into historical killings, many of them more than 40 years old.
Without prejudice to the ex- soldiers’ cases, Brokenshire’s implied criticisms of not only the DPP but the chief justice for championing historic inquests have made the restoration of the Assembly that bit more difficult. His comments and those of Barra McGrory’s other critics should have no affect whatever on the administration of justice.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London