Belfast Telegraph

Friday 19 December 2014

Price's pardon is lost along with 'standard' procedures

Jailed: Marian Price with a masked man during a 32 County Sovereignty Movement Easter commemoration
Jailed: Marian Price with a masked man during a 32 County Sovereignty Movement Easter commemoration

In olden days, a politician knocking a judge was something shocking. Now, heaven knows, anything goes. In Northern Ireland, anyway.

Here, former Secretary of State Peter Hain gets to tell a judge who delivered a verdict he disapproved of that he's "off his rocker", while current incumbent, Owen Paterson, orders someone into prison because he reckons we'd all be better off with her out of the way. At least that's how it seems.

Hain, in his recent autobiography, suggested that a High Court judge, Mr Justice Girvan, was not the full shilling when he ruled, back in 2006, that the appointment of Bertha McDougall as interim Victims' Commissioner had been made for an "improper political purpose".

Mrs McDougall, the widow of a reserve police officer assassinated by the INLA, was announced as interim commissioner in October 2005. At the time, Hain was trying to coax the DUP towards acceptance of power-sharing. The appointment was seen by some victims' groups and by nationalist politicians as a gesture to Ian Paisley's party.

No one cast doubt on Mrs McDougall's integrity. The integrity of the NIO was a different affair.

Hain insisted he had chosen Mrs McDougall without reference to outside opinion, solely because he thought her the best person for the job.

In response to a Freedom of Information request from west Belfast woman, Brenda Downes, whose husband had been killed by a RUC plastic bullet, the NIO said that, "No consultation ... took place".

But then Jeffrey Donaldson blew the gaffe. Pressed by journalists, he gave a straight answer: the DUP had been "fully" consulted and had been "delighted" by Mrs McDougall's appointment.

The Lord Chief Justice, Sir Brian Kerr, now gave Mrs Downes the go-head to apply for a judicial review. Mr Justice Girvan presided.

The head of the civil service, Nigel Hamilton, submitted an affidavit, which he testified had been seen and approved by Hain, admitting that there had been political input into the process and that it had been the DUP which had put forward Mrs McDougall's name. Mrs Downes then applied to have Hain summoned to explain himself. Mr Justice Girvan agreed. Hain's response to the summons was a shrug.

Another senior NIO official, political director Jonathan Phillips, confirmed that not only had the DUP been consulted and had suggested Mrs Downes for the post, but Hain had personally ordered that no party other than the DUP be consulted.

Mr Justice Girvan declared: "It must be concluded that it was decided that the correct information should not be placed before the court ... This case raises very serious issues, which should be the subject of immediate and searching inquiry at a high level."

Hain told journalists that he'd let them know if he decided to have an inquiry. Mr Justice Girvan convened a High Court hearing and explained that he hadn't asked Hain whether he fancied holding an inquiry. Such an inquiry could not anyway "be conducted by any of the personnel involved".

Swearing to "incorrect and misleading information," he added, "would appear to fall within the concept of perverting the course of justice".

In December 2006, Attorney General Lord Goldsmith announced the appointment of civil servant Peter Scott to conduct the inquiry. Scott's inquiry was held in secret.

It found that while the process had been entirely improper, Hain couldn't be held personally responsible. Scott didn't reject any of the rulings, or remarks, of Mr Justice Girvan.

Six years later, Hain's successor, Owen Paterson, has sent the traditional republican Marian Price back to jail because, he says, she breached the terms of the licence on which she had been released in 1980 from a life sentence for the March 1973 Provisional IRA bombing of London.

Price's lawyers insist that she had been freed by Royal pardon, not on licence, and that Paterson doesn't have the authority to overrule a pardon. They have demanded production of the document, so that its terms can be established. Paterson says that the only copy has been lost or shredded.

There are many people - by no means all of them sympathetic to Price's politics - who are quite prepared to disbelieve this.

Others will find it impossible to believe that a Secretary of State could supply incorrect and misleading information in a fraught and sensitive case. But, oh yes, he could.

Speaking last week of Mr Justice Girvan's handling of the matter, Hain scoffed that "It wouldn't have happened anywhere else in the UK".

Right enough. If it had happened anywhere else, Hain would have been run out of public life.

But this is wild and wacky Northern Ireland, where normal rules don't apply, where due process is optional and, at the whim of a politician, where anything goes.

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