Northern Ireland's Attorney General John Larkin has clarified his controversial offer to question representatives of the Marie Stopes clinic for the Stormont Justice Committee — insisting that he was acting in an official capacity.
This appears to cut across a recent claim from Peter Robinson, the First Minister, that the Attorney General wanted to assist the committee as a private individual in any investigation into the clinic which offers abortion services.
“I think John has indicated he wouldn’t be doing it in an official capacity. I don’t think we can really curtail people who are doing something outside their official duties,” Mr Robinson told BBC’s The View last week. He went on to suggest that if the Attorney were acting in his official capacity that could cause difficulties.
“As long as there is no conflict that doesn’t become a problem but if there comes a conflict for someone who is acting as the legal adviser to the Executive in helping a committee, then there would be a problem,” Mr Robinson said.
But the Attorney General made it clear that he was proposing to act officially in a meeting with Mike Nesbitt and Tom Elliott of the Ulster Unionist Party.
“We expressed our concerns about his letter of offer to the Justice Committee. The Attorney General was able to clarify with us that his letter was not a personal offer, rather he was engaging with the Justice Committee in his role as Attorney General,” Mr Elliott said.
He added: “He said that whether or not he conducted interviews on behalf of the committee was ultimately a decision for the committee itself. I was also interested to hear his view that he sees a range of options of how the committee could engage his services. This is a matter for the committee, but as a matter of principle I would expect the Attorney General to work in support of, rather than in place of, MLAs.”
A DUP source said Mr Robinson had believed that Mr Larkin was offering to help the committee in an official capacity but that if he went on to question witnesses, as he proposed, he would do so as a private individual.
The continuing confusion about whether there would be a conflict or not makes it likely that the committee will not accept Mr Larkin’s offer.
DUP sources suggested that they would instead interview him while Sinn Fein have already said his offer was inappropriate.
The SDLP have called on him to demonstrate his impartiality after comments that he had made in 1985 equating abortion with shooting a child were rebroadcast.
However the UUP, who had been critical, are now satisfied provided Mr Larkin does not question witnesses.
Mr Nesbitt said that Mr Larkin’s child shooting comments were an “explicit statement of his moral stance and many Ulster Unionists would agree with him.” He added that after meeting with Larkin he is “confident” that in giving legal advice Larkin “can separate moral convictions from his duties as chief legal advisor”.
He said that Mr Larkin was “definitely not withdrawing the letter” despite suggestions from Sinn Fein that he should do so.