Robert Barr: High Court judge who headed Abbeylara tribunal

On the Special Criminal Court he dealt with many IRA cases

Mr Justice Robert Barr: June 28th, 1930-September 7th, 2016. Photograph: Ronan Quinlan/Collins

Robert Barr, who has died aged 86, was a former High Court judge who sat in the Special Criminal Court during the violence of the 1980s and 1990s.

Over the course of his long career, he was associated with a large number of important cases, both as a barrister and as a senior member of the judiciary.

Born in Glasgow, his mother, Eileen Mulhearn, was from Enniskillen, Co Fermanagh, and his father, Robert Barr, was a member of the family behind the popular Scottish soft drink, Irn-Bru, sometimes called Scotland's "other national drink", (after whisky).

He was attending school in London at the outset of the second World War and was sent to Dublin because of the Blitz. His father died when Robert was young and his mother followed him to Dublin.


After a period in Belvedere College in Dublin, he went as a boarder to Clongowes Wood College in Co Kildare, a school with which he was to remain linked for the rest of his life.

Civil practice

After school he worked with

Zurich Insurance

while studying both in Trinity College Dublin and King’s Inns. He worked as a barrister from the mid-1950s, being made a senior counsel in 1972.

A supporter of Fine Gael, he contributed to the drafting of the party's 1960s Towards a Just Society document. As a barrister he mainly had a general civil practice, but also got criminal prosecution briefs, especially when Fine Gael was in power.

He was one of the prosecuting counsel for the 1978 Sallins mail train robbery case in the Special Criminal Court. The first trial collapsed after more than 60 days because of the death of one of the three judges.

The defendants were jailed at the end of a new trial, but later released because of statements being secured from them under duress. One, Nicky Kelly, later got a presidential pardon.

Mr Justice Barr was also a prosecuting counsel in a case where three men were sentenced to death by hanging by the Special Criminal Court. The men had taken part in a 1980 bank raid in Ballaghaderreen, Co Roscommon, in the aftermath of which two gardaí, Henry Byrne and John Morley, were murdered. The sentences were later commuted.

Loyalist incursion

When he was made a High Court judge in 1985, Mr Justice Barr was put on the panel for the Special Criminal Court. He sat on a large number of very serious cases involving members of the Provisional IRA and was considered to be tough when it came to sentencing.

He was the presiding judge in the 1987 case where the then East Belfast MP, Peter Robinson, pleaded guilty to unlawful assembly after a loyalist incursion into Clontibret, Co Monaghan. Mr Justice Barr remanded Robinson in custody overnight.

At the time all people remanded in custody from the court had to go to Portlaoise Prison, which held a large number of IRA prisoners. Robinson was taken there, but immediately moved to Limerick Prison. The next day he was released, having been fined £17,500.

Mr Justice Barr also presided in the 1998 case in which Paul Ward was jailed for life for the murder of journalist Veronica Guerin.

The conviction was overturned in an appeal that attacked the role played in the conviction by a State-protected witness, Charles Bowden, whose evidence was crucial in securing Ward’s conviction.

One of Mr Justice Barr’s most controversial rulings in the High Court was his 2000 finding that the State had failed to adequately provide for the education of Kathy Sinnott’s son, Jamie, who was autistic.

The judgment, which involved the matter of implied rights in the Constitution, found the State could not put an age limit (18 years) on its obligation to provide free primary education.

It was seen by the cabinet as a straying by the courts into an area properly the preserve of the executive, a view supported by a six-one majority decision of the Supreme Court after an appeal by the State.

After his retirement on reaching the age of 72, Mr Justice Barr was asked to head up a tribunal of inquiry into the killing by the Garda Síochána of John Carthy (27) in Abbeylara, Co Longford, in 2000.

In his 2006 report the judge found that the killing of Carthy, who suffered from depression, had been “avoidable” and that the garda who shot him might not have needed to if the siege on the home of Carthy, who had a legally held shotgun, had been better managed.

Keen sailor

Mr Justice Barr was a keen sailor (and sat in the Admiralty Court when serving in the High Court) and was interested in good wine and good food. Friends joked that he liked to sail to France with a


guide, which would dictate what ports he would call into.

He was a long-time force in the Clongowes boys club. It had a premises on Coppinger Row which was used since the 1940s to provide activities to poorer children from the York Street area. He was president of the Clongowes Union in 1996-1997.

Mr Justice Barr is survived by his widow Mary Roche, originally from Glenageary, Co Dublin, and their five children Robert, Anthony, Patrick, Michael and Louise. Anthony is a High Court judge.

He is also survived by 15 grandchildren and a great- granddaughter. He was predeceased by his brother Eddie.