Freemasons lose 'civil war' battle
Freemasons in Co Antrim were in "civil war" over charges against two of their members, a judge has said.
Mr Justice Weatherup dismissed claims for damages against the secretive organisation after it bent its rules to avoid bias during disciplinary proceedings.
The provincial leadership referred cases against two of its Co Antrim members to its central Grand Lodge of Ireland in Dublin before they had a chance to state their case before investigators.
Mr Justice Weatherup said: "In effect, there was civil war in the province, that was the reason why that course was not taken.
"I am satisfied that it was prudent to do so in the circumstances."
Brian Hood, 48, and his father Stewart Hood, 67, from Randalstown in Co Antrim, sued the Grand Lodge after they were suspended on charges of "unmasonic conduct", making remarks of a disparaging nature against senior officials in Antrim and criticising decisions made.
Disciplinary action to suspend the Hoods was first taken in 2009.
A number of the same officials who were the subject of the alleged comments would have been involved in disciplinary proceedings against the men if rules had been strictly followed.
The decision was made to refer the matter, once an initial case had been established, to the Grand Lodge without first summoning the men to explain themselves.
It proceeded through various committees, including a disciplinary hearing in Dublin to which the Hoods were summoned, and culminated in last autumn's decision to uphold their suspension.
The father and son argued that, rather than going to the Grand Lodge, the matter should have been dealt with at provincial level in Antrim.
Mr Justice Weatherup, sitting in Belfast's Commercial Court, said the masonic leadership in Antrim faced a dilemma between sticking to rules which required the early part of the process to be dealt with locally and ensuring fairness and lack of bias.
The judge said: "Insofar as there is a complaint about the reference for investigation being made to Grand Lodge rather than the province, I am not satisfied that that constituted breach of contract.
"I believe it was a required step in order to avoid a breach of the rules of natural justice."
A total of seven claims were lodged with the court by the two men but they were not upheld.
The judge added: "There would have been a perception of bias by the (Antrim) committee even if it was reconstituted to bring in members from the lodges who were not officials.
"It is unavoidable that the circumstances which emerged in this case... would have attracted the complaint of actual bias and perceived bias."
Membership of the freemasons is open to all men regardless of their creed, provided they believe in God. The Grand Lodge of Ireland was established in 1725.