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Northern Ireland law chief Larkin to give Presbyterians a lesson on legal battle from their past

By Alf McCreary

Attorney-General John Larkin is set to address a Presbyterian church next week.

Mr Larkin will give a lecture next Wednesday at Clough Non-Subscribing Meeting House in Co Down about an historic case within the church.

The subject arises out of an 1836 legal case, Dill v Watson, which was to determine which of two parties in Irish Presbyterianism was entitled to the ownership of the Meeting House in Clough.

As a result, the Clough case featuring the Reverend Dill and the Reverend Watson became a turning point in wider legal and theological controversies.

The Rev David Steers, minister of Clough Non-Subscribing Church, told the Belfast Telegraph yesterday he was inspired to invite Mr Larkin after he heard him give a similar talk to a legal society in Trinity College, Dublin.

"I asked Mr Larkin if he would give the same lecture, possibly in my own church, and he readily agreed. I think he will use this opportunity to make the lecture more accessible to an audience containing a number of non-legal people, and that he will describe some of the more colourful figures in the case," he said.

In the end the historic case was won by the Reverend Watson, and the ownership of Clough church was granted to the mainstream Presbyterian Church, which retains ownership even today.

In contrast, the Non-Subscribing congregation had to build its own new church in Clough in 1837, which is still being used.

At the time of its opening it was thought to be the first architecturally "classical" Presbyterian Church in Ireland.

In an abstract of the Larkin lecture, this case is described as "the first Irish legal battle in a campaign during which litigation was the adjunct of theological controversy, and in the Clough case there is almost a fusion of legal and theological debate."

"What is striking, and fascinating, about the Clough case is that both parties published reports of the decision. Law reporting for the parties ... was no abstract record of a judicial decision, but a further way for historical, legal, political and theological debate to be carried on.

"The two reports of the Clough case opened a distinct front in a pamphlet campaign that lasted until the Dissenters Chapel Act 1844, if not beyond."

John Larkin's lecture will take place on the seventh anniversary of his appointment as Attorney-General of Northern Ireland.

Born in Belfast, and educated at St Mary's Christian Brothers Grammar School, he read law at Queen's University and later practiced at the Northern Ireland Bar, where he specialised in a number of legal fields including administrative law, civil liberties and human rights, and competition and constitutional law.

The Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church has 34 congregations in three Presbyteries - Bangor, Antrim and Munster - and traces its history back to 1613, when Presbyterianism was introduced to Ireland.

The first Non-Subscribing Presbytery was formed back in 1725.

The lecture will take place on Wednesday, May 24 at the Clough Non-Subscribing Meeting House in Co Down. It is open to the everyone, and set to start at 7.30pm.

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