15th March 2013
The Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland Sir Declan Morgan has given a rare TV interview designed to take the heat out of allegations of partiality between unionists and nationalists in granting bail. He is offering to explain the basis of recent decisions to the Justice Committee of the Northern Ireland Assembly and is making himself available to his most prominent critic, the Democratic Unionist First Minister of the powersharing Executive Peter Robinson. The meeting was in fact pre-arranged but will now take on a more urgent character. His private secretary had earlier sent a letter to the Assembly explaining that in bail decisions judges carefully weigh the risks – such as a risk of flight, likelihood of committing further offences, interfering with witnesses and preservation of public order – against the rights of the untried accused.
“It is essential that they are free to do this independently and without being subject to external influence.”
Now the chief justice has widened his response to add the offer of an appearance before Assembly members and a meeting with the First Minister if he still wants one. As a direct response to a running controversy this move is unprecedented and as I’ll argue shortly, carries risks which Morgan himself will be aware of.
Even post- Troubles Northern Ireland politics is still largely a zero sum game. In this case unionists are up in arms at bail being denied to two ring leaders of sporadic protests at the decision of Belfast City Council to reduce the number of days for flying the Union Jack above the City Hall. One of them Willie Frazer attracts both sympathy and hostility. Four family members including his father, all of them members of the security forces, were killed by the IRA over 10 years. He is head of a movement called FAIR, Families Acting for Innocent (unionist) families which campaigns for justice for victims of the Troubles but specialises in provocative demonstrations and comments. He was refused bail on March 1. At another hearing when bail was refused to another alleged loyalist agitator Jamie Bryson, the judge hit out against “ill informed debate” about bail decisions. This attracted the comment of “ judicial arrogance “ from a DUP minister.
Meanwhile, switching sides, two prominent republicans in south Armagh were granted bail in connection with demonstrations eight years ago in favour of the ( not quite disbanded ) IRA which had been held responsible for the notorious murder of a Belfast man Robert McCartney in 2005. Despite a McCartney family campaign which reached Downing St and the Oval Office, IRA omerta has held. The arrests of the two men Padraic Wilson and Sean Hughes were attacked by Sinn Fein politicians as “ political policing” to counter balance the actions against loyalists. Unionists immediately claimed partiality in deciding bail between republican and loyalists.
I accept that there are grounds for interesting speculation about how and why bail has been granted or refused but this has little to do with the judiciary.
Why charge Hughes and Wilson with IRA membership and encouraging a proscribed organisation in a demo that happened eight years ago? Is this a real new lead in the MCartney case? It doesn’t feel like it but who can tell at this stage? If there is no fire behind the smoke this might be seen as an unnecessarily provocative move just as the very moment a dissident republican attack had been foiled.
Why wait so long to lift the loyalists Frazer and Bryson? That one is easier to speculate about – because it’s better to exploit a lull (if that’s what is it is ) in the flags protest. But we’re unlikely to get straight answers to such questions and certainly not from the judiciary. Answers in some form may emerge from the PSNI and the DPP if charges are proceeded with.
Although the judges – and of course the police and the DPP – are now being attacked by both sides, this is not a full blown crisis between the politicians and the criminal justice system. It even represents a sort of progress. Republicans now argue for fair treatment from the criminal justice system rather than rejecting it altogether. What is happening is a symptom of the tensions created by an underlying shift in power between unionism and nationalism as a result of growing nationalist numbers and the implementation of the equality provisions of the Good Friday Agreement. From time to time there is controversy over where fairness lies and the criminal justice system is caught in the middle.
In an arid zero sum debate – unionist loss is republican gain or vice versa – the judiciary has boldly moved to assert its good faith and educate the politicians in an impartial justice system which like any other body can make mistakes. The risk the chief justice is taking is that is that he may unwittingly feed an appetite for routine explanations of verdicts and sentences and produce disillusion and even louder complaints when he refuses. This could turn the judiciary into what he and his colleagues greatly fear, a political football. Much hangs on Northern Ireland’s politicians behaving responsibly to prevent the judiciary being sucked into their zero sum game.