Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 21 September 2014

Peter Robinson sends a clear message to Attorney General John Larkin: Don't overstep the mark

Peter Robinson: "You wouldn't expect the holder of certain offices to be coming out to lead a political debate."
Peter Robinson: "You wouldn't expect the holder of certain offices to be coming out to lead a political debate."

Peter Robinson has delivered a withering rebuke to John Larkin over his controversial views on the past – warning him to keep out of politics.

And in a sign of the First Minister's growing anger over the Attorney General's proposal to end prosecutions in Troubles-related murders, the First Minister has said that he and Martin McGuinness will change the terms of reference of the top legal office as a result of their experiences with Mr Larkin.

But yesterday Mr Larkin risked heightening tensions further when he made another political intervention, stating he could see merit in the argument there should be an opposition at Stormont.

Mr Larkin told the Irish Catholic newspaper that to have so many parties represented in the Executive is not conducive to good adversarial politics.

"There may be a role for giving more space for an opposition.

"I can see the force in those arguments," he added. But the First Minister responded by stating that Mr Larkin was the Executive's legal adviser, "not our political adviser".

"The Attorney did not make either the Deputy First Minister or myself aware of his comments. The first knowledge of what he had said came to us from the media," Mr Robinson said. He added that he saw "no merit" in Mr Larkin's suggestion that there should be no more prosecutions or investigations of Troubles-era offences.

Mr Robinson said that Mr Larkin's controversial comments were within his statutory terms of reference, but that he should have exercised restraint.

Mr Larkin's term as Attorney General runs out in May. Asked if he and Martin McGuinness felt inclined to reappoint him, Mr Robinson said that they had a view which they were not yet ready to announce.

But he added that they will change the terms of reference of the Attorney General as a result of their experience with Mr Larkin.

"I believe he has gone on to make some further comments about our political institutions.

"The Attorney is the Executive's legal adviser, not our political adviser. While I wouldn't want to take away from any citizen their right to comment on a wide range of matters... you wouldn't expect the holder of certain offices to be coming out to lead a political debate. So I think that is a factor we have to take into account in terms of the role an Attorney General should play."

Dame Elish Angiolini, a former Lord Advocate of Scotland, has carried out a review of the Attorney's role which says that it allows too much latitude. Mr Robinson said her findings "are being considered, officials are drawing up recommendations at the present time and as soon as they have, the Deputy First Minister and I will consider and make recommendations to our colleagues. I don't want to create a deadline but we will do it as soon as it is possible".

Last summer, Mr Robinson pulled the plug on plans to build a peace centre at the Maze, saying that Sinn Fein had made it a source of contention, especially with victims of IRA violence. Now he has dropped a hint that the creation of a peace centre could be reconsidered.

He told this paper: "What I am saying is that we are quite prepared to go ahead with a peace centre provided we can get broad support across the community for it"

The First Minister has also warned flag protesters who will gather in Belfast city centre at the end of this month that they must obey Parades Commission restrictions which specify that they must be out of the city centre by 12.30pm.

In September, a similar parade left later than had been allowed, causing disruption to shoppers and complaints from traders.

"Its ruling is the law and the rule of law must be observed without exception," the First Minister said.

He is our legal adviser... not our political adviser

Peter Robinson speaks frankly...

On John Larkin's proposals...

"I suppose it gives Dr Haass a very clear view of public opinion on such matters. I have met with Dr Haass only hours beforehand and I have given him my views on issues like immunity and amnesty. I think they have been very well reinforced by the public reaction to the Attorney's remarks. I don't think it is right that victims should have no hope of a prosecution taking place that would give them some element of justice, nor do I believe that any perpetrator should be allowed to live the rest of their lives free from the fear that their crime is going to catch up with them and that they are going to be prosecuted. It doesn't happen elsewhere and it shouldn't happen here."

On the role of the Attorney General...

"This does of course put a spotlight on what the role of an Attorney General should be. As you know, we are carrying out a review at the present time of that role and I think it will probably concentrate minds as to whether an Attorney should be involved in making political comments. I believe he has gone on to make some further comments about our political institutions.

"The Attorney (right) is the Executive's legal adviser, not our political adviser. While I wouldn't want to take away from any citizen their right to comment on a wide range of matters, there is a recognised protocol that there are certain posts in our society that are not political. You wouldn't expect the holder of certain offices to be coming out to lead a political debate."

On replacing Edwin Poots as Health Minister...

"There are some people who would suggest that it is not the best time to make a change coming up to an election (the council and EU elections are in May). Edwin has had a very difficult role.

"I think there are few roles within the Executive which have such a burden and workload as the Department of Health, so I am very sympathetic to Edwin's position. Those are decisions we will take closer to the time."

On stepping down before Assembly elections in 2016...

"If I had been doing what was most comfortable to me I probably would have been signing off before now, but I recognise that there is a job to be done.

"I don't think we are at a stage where it is suitable for me to retire so I am going on, Duracell-fashion, and there is no stop date."

On the European elections to be held next May...

"There is a growing view within the party that we should put forward two candidates. We will consider it again in January and we will do what is best not just for the party but for the wider unionist community.

"The issue for us is whether the Ulster Unionist Party is capable of winning a seat now that they are down to 10% of the vote.

"Would our putting a second candidate make it more likely that we could keep two seats for unionism or does it make it more difficult?

"We are getting our psephologists to look at the issue and make recommendations to us in January."

On encouraging Catholic support for the DUP...

"I do encourage Catholics to support the party and will continue to do so.

"We had an internal survey carried out and I noticed that 1% of our membership was Catholic.

"It was a very low start, but it is a start.

"I recognise that given the kind of process that brought us into politics we might not have been the most attractive vehicle for Catholics, but we do get some support within the Catholic community.

"When I first got elected in 1979, I suspect that Catholic voters gave me the edge. My majority was 64 and I am pretty sure that I had more than 64 Catholics voting for me."

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