Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 27 August 2014

People in positions of power need to behave with maturity

Attorney General John Larkin and Minister Nelson McCausland should act in accordance with the dignity of their office

I felt sick when I heard Attorney General John Larkin's comments, made in 2008, about late-term abortions in the case of extreme foetal abnormality.

The violence of the language he used was shocking. Spitting the words out, he said that destroying a highly disabled child in the womb was akin to “putting a bullet in the back of the head of the child two days after it's born”.

To my mind, his remarks were aggressive and lacking in compassion — for the parents of a much-wanted child who find themselves in that extremely rare, but terribly distressing situation, for the medical staff assisting them, and, yes, even for the unborn infant itself.

All outcomes will be harrowing, but parents may decide, together with their doctors, that the most humane option — especially where the child will not survive outside the womb — is to choose a termination.

In their grief, they deserve to be treated with great sensitivity and respect, not shamed and vilified. I hope no one who has found themselves in such an appalling scenario was listening to the radio that day.

Mr Larkin's comments about bullets in the back of the head were also highly insensitive in the context of our post-conflict society.

There are many victims of the Troubles out there for whom such words spark painful memories of trauma and loss — and all for the sake of a dramatic, rhetorical flourish in a radio debate. Of course, as Mr Larkin's defenders in the DUP and the SDLP have pointed out, he made his remarks before he took up the post of Attorney General of Northern Ireland.

Therefore, the argument goes, they should have no bearing on his offer to act as counsel and cross-examiner to the Stormont justice committee in any investigation of the Marie Stopes clinic.

Mr Larkin has made his ultra-hardline views abundantly clear — on this issue, he's way out beyond even pro-life people like Rev David McIlveen, of the Free Presbyterian Church, who has called for “sensitivity” in the instance of severe foetal abnormality.

Against the backdrop of these remarks, it is up to Mr Larkin to demonstrate that he could act as a neutral upholder of the law on this issue.

Respected legal expert Joshua Rozenberg has said that he could not imagine Dominic Grieve, the Attorney General of England and Wales, acting in this way, explaining that Grieve “tries to keep aloof, separate from matters of political controversy”.

No one doubts Mr Larkin's intellectual and legal acumen. But he does seem to have a habit of eagerly leaping into situations, feet first, in a way which may be incommensurate with the status of his role as Northern Ireland's Attorney General.

Remarkably, Mr Larkin sought to intervene in Austrian equality legislation, in a case brought to the European Court of Human Rights by two gay Austrians seeking to adopt a child.

And his attempt — at taxpayers' expense — to prosecute MP Peter Hain for criticising a Belfast judge was met with widespread derision and condemnation. Commentator Quentin Letts described the move as a challenge to free speech. The case was later dropped.

Such intemperate interventions look bad for all of us. It is the same when Health Minister Edwin Poots vowed — again at public expense — to overturn the High Court ruling that made adoption by same-sex couples legal.

In a much smaller way, it's the same when Social Development Minister Nelson McCausland singles out female journalists who have incurred his wrath — Hi, Nelse! — and puts pictures of them on his personal blog.

For instance, I can't imagine British education minister Michael Gove sticking a big mug-shot of Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee on his website. You'd like to think that Government ministers would be above such petty sniping.

In the interest of public support for the institutions of the state, and our wider reputation in the world, it is vital that those in positions of power act with calm maturity, in accordance with the dignity and the objectivity of their office.

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