Attention in the legal world will focus today in the swearing in of Lady Chief Justice Siobhan Keegan, the first woman to hold the chief justice post ( and the third Catholic in a row – so perhaps that’s one dragon that’s finally been slain) . Young for the job at 50 and entirely home grown, it may be no coincidence that she presided over the Ballymurphy inquest which although not a trial, provided at the very least ample justification for continuing legal process rather than blanket amnesty.
Almost as interesting as the new appointment has been a valedictory interview given to the Detail website by the retiring justice Declan Morgan. Within the constraints of the bench he was the outspoken critic of the delays and obstacles strewn in the path of the legal system by sectarian bickering by local politicians.
The system of higher powered inquests set up in 2015 was very much his baby. He remains deeply frustrated that the wider accompanying reforms promised by the Stormont House Agreement seven years ago not only haven’t been introduced , they’ve been abandoned unilaterally by the British government.
(Declan Morgan) said that when he became President of the Coroners Court in 2015, London and Stormont had failed to implement the legacy sections of the Stormont House Agreement and even now, still, “largely none of them have been put in place,”
The interview well worth reading in full is full of cautious lawyerly musing about how to handle the legacy. He avoids direct criticism of the UK government’s amnesty notions but the continuation of legal process in some form is implicit in all that he has to say.
Even more interesting because it ranges outside the judicial system are his comments about reforming the power sharing system. They stem from the three year suspension of Stormont when the judiciary took its own view of public opinion by ruling in favour of same sex marriage in the absence of the Assembly.
.. as a society, we need to consider whether “we necessarily want to continue to operate on the basis of a collective government as distinct from, you know, a government that’s held to account by some politicians who take a different view.
“I think that’s an open question. I wonder really whether, you know, there might come a time in the not too distant future where we start to think about whether we could afford to have another look at what Mark Durkan called the ugly architecture of the 1998 agreement. I mean, I think it served its purpose at the time, but it’s not a legal matter, but the standing back, I’m thinking to myself, I just wonder whether there may be an opportunity to think a bit differently about it. And I do wonder whether it might produce better law. I mean, if you have challenge to what you’re doing, then, you know, it brings the problems to your attention and there’s more likelihood of thinking through what the difficulties might be with what you’re proposing and, therefore, what the solutions might be. I think it might just bring better law.”
While Morgan remains unspecific, the “ architecture “ he refers to includes the role of the designated blocs that so often lead to deadlock and delay. A “voluntary “ rather than the present “ mandated” coalition with a supermajority for essential safeguards is the obvious alternative. Rather than expend so much energy on speculating on the timing and format of a border poll and its concurrent southern counterpart, this would be far more worthwhile subject for debate and perhaps electoral choice among parties whose first avowed object is supposed to be “ making the Assembly work.” Declan Morgan’s interview is a good point of departure to set the ball rolling.
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