Northern Ireland’s next DPP to face Troubles legacy ‘nightmare’

Handling of cases such as Bloody Sunday, Stakeknife and Gary Haggarty awaits

Northern Ireland’s  soon-to-depart director of public prosecutions Barra McGrory QC:  said dealing with the past will be a continuing “difficulty” for any DPP in Northern Ireland.   Photograph: Gerry Moriarty

Northern Ireland’s soon-to-depart director of public prosecutions Barra McGrory QC: said dealing with the past will be a continuing “difficulty” for any DPP in Northern Ireland. Photograph: Gerry Moriarty

 

With considerable understatement, the soon-to-depart director of public prosecutions Barra McGrory QC said dealing with the past will be a continuing “difficulty” for any DPP in Northern Ireland.

One source more accurately said that legacy issues are and will be a “nightmare” for his successor, as they have been for McGrory.

It’s the big issue that politicians have failed to grasp notwithstanding that a set of detailed proposals on how to address the past were put together in the Christmas 2014 Stormont House Agreement.

Prior to the collapse of the Northern Executive, northern secretary James Brokenshire was planning to address the issue but, amid the Westminster election campaign and current political stalemate, that project was put on hold.

McGrory insisted that after more than 5½ years in the post he was preparing to return to private practice and his impending resignation was not motivated by the abuse and criticism to which he has been subjected by some British Conservative and unionist politicians.

But well-placed sources said it was a factor.

His successor will be appointed by a panel led by the North’s attorney general John Larkin QC.

Verbal assault

That person may not face the same level of verbal assault as McGrory had to withstand. The fact he had among his clients Gerry Adams and the late Martin McGuinness seemed to rankle with some Tories and unionists.

The additional fact that, as lawyers do, he represented a broad range of clients including loyalist paramilitaries, unionist politicians and former police officers did not figure in their assessment of him.

One cannot help but wonder too if another element in the sometimes bad-mannered and crass criticism of McGrory from some quarters is the fact that he is such a successful lawyer and that he hails from a nationalist, Catholic tradition.

McGrory has explained in the past that the law is blind and that if the police present him with evidence that demands a prosecution then he is legally obliged to proceed with that prosecution.

His successor, no matter what tradition he or she is from, will face the exact same legal requirement – unless the politicians, some of those attacking McGrory, find a workable compromise that addresses the past and takes it away from the prosecutorial system.

There will be many “difficult” legacy matters for the new DPP to deal with. For instance up to 18 former soldiers could face charges in respect of the 14 Bloody Sunday killings. If the next DPP is provided with evidence that justifies prosecution how legally could he or she avoid pressing ahead with such prosecutions even if the Conservative establishment demands that the soldiers be left alone?

Troubles-related killings

And if loyalist “supergrass” Gary Haggarty is judged a credible witness providing credible evidence that would put a lot of former loyalist paramilitaries away for Troubles-related killings, how legally could any DPP not proceed with such cases?

And what about Freddie Scappaticci, the British agent known as Stakeknife who could be implicated in up to 50 murders? If the police provide evidence to link him to some, most or all of these killings would the next DPP be expected to allow Stakeknife to remain free from prosecution because he was a British agent?

McGrory did not offer any advice to whoever his successor will be when he stood down on Wednesday. He felt he could not comment during the “purdah” of the Westminster general election campaign while indicating he would make more detailed comments before quitting office.

However, just a few months into his role in early 2012 he did offer a potential means of escaping the “nightmare” of legacy matters.

“I think there is an imperative in the public interest that society finds a mechanism to deal with the past,” he said in an address to the civil liberties group, the Committee on the Administration of Justice. “In my view, the sooner it confronts it the better – but confront it, it needs to.”

That probably still is his view, which hands the problem and responsibility right back to some of the politicians who were so personally scathing of McGrory.