North's AG should steer clear of politics

Thu, Nov 1, 2012, 00:00

John Larkin’s unsolicited offer to lead an inquiry into the legality of the Marie Stopes clinic in Belfast is glaringly inappropriate, writes SUSAN McKAY

THE DEMOCRATIC Unionist Party is doing its best to protect the North’s Attorney General from himself.

So glaringly inappropriate was John Larkin’s unsolicited offer to lead an investigation into the legality of the new Marie Stopes clinic in Belfast by the Stormont justice committee that First Minister Peter Robinson rushed in: “I think John has indicated he wouldn’t be doing it in an official capacity.” There “would be a problem” if that was not the case, he warned.

Undeterred, Larkin bounced back to insist that his offer was very much in his official role as the Executive’s legal adviser. Sinn Féin, Alliance, UUP and SDLP politicians have expressed varying levels of disquiet, but the DUP is still trying.

Larkin is the kind of Catholic the party likes – he makes the extreme fundamentalist wing of the Free Presbyterians look like Pussy Riot. A source explained to the Belfast Telegraph that what the First Minister had believed was that Larkin had offered to help the committee in his official capacity, but that if he went on to question witnesses, it would be as a private individual.

We know what that would sound like. There was a rehearsal of the inquisition during a BBC Northern Ireland radio panel discussion in 2008, when Larkin, then a barrister, asked Dawn Purvis, then a politician, to “tell me the logical distinction between destroying the unborn child in the womb, seconds before birth and putting a bullet in the head of a child two days after it’s born”.

Brutal and insensitive language has never been confined in this country to social media sites frequented by teenagers.

Purvis described his comments as a disgrace, and indicative of why Northern Ireland was “the backwater that it is”.

Four years later, he is the Attorney General, and she is the chief executive of the Marie Stopes clinic, which offers abortion in the extremely limited circumstances that, as far as its legal advisers have been able to ascertain, are allowed under Northern Irish law.

The clinic’s UK director has pointed out that there can only be an investigation if it is alleged they have carried out an illegal act. The appropriate investigating authority would then be the PSNI.

Bear in mind that if an interrogation by the justice committee was allowed, Purvis would face not just Larkin – the private individual, that is, advised by his public self, the Attorney General – but a committee consisting of 10 men and just one woman.

Bear in mind, too, that if there is any lack of clarity about the law on abortion, it is because, in the North, as in the Republic, successive ministers have gone to great lengths to avoid dealing with the issue.

Earlier this year, members of an all-party anti-abortion group met at Stormont to discuss the progress of Department of Health guidelines.

These have been long promised but show no signs of appearing.

The minutes, obtained by the BBC, suggest Larkin was advising the Executive on the matter, and the DUP’s Jim Wells (the next health minister) indicated that the Attorney General had “taken control and his views on abortion were sound”.

If the First and Deputy First Ministers, who appointed Larkin, are reticent about challenging his extraordinary view of his powers, the British government is not.

Larkin recently urged the European Court of Human Rights to have a look at Northern Ireland before it decided whether or not to rule that Austria had breached a lesbian couple’s rights by refusing to allow them to adopt their child.

In Northern Ireland, unmarried couples or civil partners, whatever their sexuality, cannot adopt, though single people, whatever their sexuality, can.

This anomaly has been declared illegal by the House of Lords and, this month, by the High Court in Belfast.

The British foreign office informed the European court that Larkin had no business making such an intervention and that the views he had expressed were not those of the British government and did not reflect the position throughout the UK.

Former solicitor general Edward Garnier, QC, told the House of Lords the government was “not happy”.

Attorneys general are expected to keep aloof from political controversy. Larkin risks being thwarted by his own stubborn arrogance.

He has complained to the justice committee because when justice was devolved to Northern Ireland, it was decided that the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions should be independent, as in the Republic, rather than under the supervision of the Attorney General, as in Britain, where, however, it is well established that the DPP is, largely, left well alone.

Larkin has done nothing to suggest that he has the maturity, nous or common sense to uphold that tradition.

An editorial in the Guardian recently on his abortion interventions suggested he needed to take care not to make his position as Attorney General untenable.

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