Mixing politics and courts a very dangerous cocktail
Published 19/03/2013 | 09:00
The recent public spat between unionist politicians and the judiciary is a worrying development in the devolutionary process at Stormont.
The First Minister, Peter Robinson, spoke out about a "perception" within sections of the unionist community that republicans were receiving better treatment than loyalists before the courts.
That was a very serious allegation to make – all the more so because the judicial system in Northern Ireland cannot operate without cross-community trust and respect.
Judges and magistrates are appointed to that end to enable unionists and nationalists alike to have confidence in the rule of law and its administration.
Judges make judgments on the basis of hearing all the evidence and presiding over the entire proceedings.
The rest of us may make our judgments on the basis of an abbreviated account of the proceedings, which a media outlet will publish or broadcast.
Any criticism of the judiciary in general, or of an individual judge or magistrate, is not to be taken lightly.
When made by no less a person than the First Minister, it has the potential to undermine public confidence in the law, with all that entails for the peace and stability of the state.
By talking publicly of a "perception" amongsunionists of legal bias, Mr Robinson ran a serious risk of not diminishing, but actually extending this attitude among a wider section of the public. His finance minister, Sammy Wilson, went much further, accusing a judge of "arrogance". The response of the Lord Chief Justice, Sir Declan Morgan, seems to have cleared the air – for the time being, at least.
Sir Declan said: "Now that the issue has arisen, it's important that I do what I can to bring as much information to bear on this issue as possible, so as to reassure people."
It remains to be seen if matters will be left there, or if other politicians will be emboldened to question more judicial judgments in future and, if so, what procedure they will follow for doing so.
The impression is left that Big Brother Stormont – unionists currently, but Sinn Fein on other occasions – are out there, watching judicial decisions very carefully.
Anyone openly criticising the administration of justice, or policing, in today's volatile situation needs to weigh up his, or her, words very carefully.
The first minister feels that he was entitled to draw his concerns to the attention of the judiciary. At question is whether, in the first instance, he should have done so privately, rather than issue such a public statement with the potential to add to the 'perception' of bias.
The Northern Ireland judiciary has paid a heavy price over the past 40 years to preserve its independence and to withstand political pressure. This has been one of the most dangerous places on earth to be a magistrate or a judge.
Magistrates William Staunton (1972), Martin McBirney (1974), Tom Travers wounded, and daughter killed (1984), and judges Rory Conaghan (1974), William Doyle (1983) and Maurice Gibson and his wife, Lady Gibson (1987) were all victims of the IRA.
I personally recall living nearby another leading legal figure, whose home was guarded around the clock and whose children, playing in their garden, were constantly watched over by a police officer armed with a Sten sub-machine-gun. Such sacrifice of human life and personal freedom is the price the Northern Ireland legal system had to make to reach where it is now.
As Sir Declan Morgan said in his response: "You must remember that the judiciary in Northern Ireland, for more than 30 years now, has had to deal with some horrendously difficult issues.
"They have managed throughout that time to retain public confidence by virtue of the integrity and independence of their conduct, by their commitment to public service and by their good judgment, so it is perhaps surprising that, at this stage, this issue should arise in this way."
Surprising, indeed. Justice must never become a political football. The danger of such a public debate as we have just experienced on the pros and cons of a few individual cases with political connotations should be clear to everyone.
The world is full of countries where the separation of political power from judicial independence is not apparent. Thankfully, Northern Ireland is not one of those states.
But there is always a danger that, if politicians get ahead of themselves, it could be – with disastrous consequences for us all.