Revolutionary appointment reflects 'transformation' in Northern society



BARRA McGRORY, the North’s new Director of Public Prosecutions and head of the Public Prosecution Service, has two personal and professional heroes: his late father, Paddy (PJ) McGrory, and Desmond Boal.

They are an interesting combination. The former, a solicitor of a nationalist background, was famous for representing the families of the Gibraltar Three; the latter a leading trial lawyer who formed the Democratic Unionist Party with the Rev Ian Paisley 40 years ago.

He keeps in touch with Boal and heeds his counsel. During a 90-minute early-morning interview at his offices beside the law courts in central Belfast, McGrory is most animated when describing his enthusiasm for the courtroom setting and his love affair with the ordered passion of making his case in front of judge and sometimes jury.

His father remained a solicitor through his working life, so he did not have the same advocacy opportunities as his Queen’s Counsel (QC) friend Boal, although he did make a name for himself when representing the families of the Gibraltar Three.

“My interest in the law came from my father, even though I fought it for a while.”

His early degree was in ancient history and Celtic languages, with a plan to teach Irish. But eventually his father helped lure him to the law. It was a frontline apprenticeship for a man then in his 20s dealing with high-profile cases such as republican and loyalist “supergrass” trials, and into his 30s carrying on his father’s work, representing the families of the three unarmed IRA members killed in 1988 in Gibraltar – Mairéad Farrell, Daniel McCann and Seán Savage.

They worked together preparing the successful case the families took to the European Court of Human Rights with the new Director of Public Prosecutions presenting the case in Strasbourg in 1995 and gaining a ruling that the killings were “unnecessary”. This was a pivotal moment in his life, with the Strasbourg case beginning in February 1995, just two months after his father’s death.

McGrory, who was called to the bar in 2009, two years after becoming the first solicitor in Northern Ireland to be awarded the rank of QC, reckons Boal was the best advocate he ever witnessed. “He had a mesmerising command of a courtroom that was evident from his complete mastery of the evidence in a case and the clarity with which the arguments were presented. That for me as a lawyer is always my goal: it’s mastery of the material and clarity of thought.”

THIS IS also why McGrory as DPP is going to break with recent tradition and occasionally appear in court to prosecute cases. You might think he’d have enough to do leading what his predecessor Sir Alasdair Fraser described as the biggest legal practice in Ireland with a staff of 590, 175 of them lawyers, who prosecute some 60,000 cases annually.

But no, McGrory intends to appear in court from time to time. “I certainly will,” he says. He feels it will set a good example for his own lawyers and keep him and his office sharp. But you also sense he loves the buzz. He praises the work of the Public Prosecution Service and how the staff cherish and guard the independence of the office.

The Finucanes and the McGrorys lived in a leafy area of north Belfast. In February 1989 it appeared to be almost on the basis of a flip of a coin which home an Ulster Defence Association (UDA) gang would target. They picked the Finucane house, and it was solicitor Pat Finucane who was gunned to death in front of his wife Geraldine and their children. It could well have been McGrory’s father. The three solicitors on the UDA hit list at the time were from north Belfast – Paddy McGrory, Oliver Kelly and Pat Finucane.

The background to this is bleak and murky and it still hasn’t given up all its secrets, despite the demands of the Finucane family. There is little doubt that through the inquiries of Lord Stevens there is much evidence of British security force collusion with the UDA killers of Pat Finucane. McGrory does not want to pursue this issue but says that as a solicitor who has represented the likes of Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, he too had the experience of people failing or refusing to make the distinction between lawyers and the clients they represented.

He gave evidence on the issue to the inquiry into the murder of another noted solicitor, Rosemary Nelson. “It was a major problem. As a representative of the Law Society, I, with other solicitors of other faiths, made strong representations on the issue to the then chief constable, Sir Ronnie Flanagan. I think we made considerable strides to address the problem, and I would like to think if there are incidents these days they are isolated.”

If he does lead future prosecutions, courtrooms will again witness his combative style. During the inquiry into the killing of Robert Hamill by a loyalist mob in Portadown in 1997, he accused Sir Ronnie of lying – charges which the former chief constable rejected – and said his policing reputation was in tatters. “It’s not personal,” he says. “I was pursuing a legitimate form of cross- examination and I think that was understood by all concerned, including Sir Ronnie.”

McGRORY’S APPOINTMENT is revolutionary in its way. Recently enough it would not have been possible to conceive of a lawyer from such a nationalist background, an Irish speaker to boot, being appointed to such an eminent post. “It probably reflects the transformation in society in the North of Ireland generally,” McGrory acknowledges.

“It was Cicero who said that a commonwealth is an agreement in regard to the law and a community of interest. I think really post the Good Friday agreement we have maybe for the first time in the existence of this jurisdiction a commonwealth of interest among the people who live here. That makes it a lot easier for people from my background to seek to serve in the way I am now doing.”

Part of that transformation is that Northern Ireland has a police force and a legal system that the vast majority of people can support. An additional element of that revolution, as was noted by Traditional Unionist Voice leader Jim Allister, is the three high-profile legal posts in the North are now held by people from a nationalist or Catholic background: McGrory as DPP, John Larkin QC as Attorney General, and Sir Declan Morgan as the Lord Chief Justice.

Earlier this year Allister issued a statement about hints in legal corridors at the time that McGrory – “previously Martin McGuinness’s solicitor of choice”, as Allister described him – might get the DPP post. Having these posts filled by people “from one tradition only” raised “uncomfortable issues”, he said.

McGrory would know precisely where Allister is coming from, but his answer is dispassionate. “All of these posts were filled following very rigorous and independent selection processes,” he says. “The post of DPP was open to all senior lawyers. There was a selection panel comprising the lord advocate of Scotland, the attorney general, representatives of the Law Society and the Criminal Justice Inspectorate. So, nobody can say that it was in any way a political appointment or a balancing exercise in terms of the perception of what side of the community the candidates came from.” But he must understand Allister is making vocal what some unionists would be too careful to say.

“Commitment to the rule of law takes no account of anyone’s religion, politics or race or gender. The legal duty with which I am charged in the context of the decision to prosecute is governed by two tests: the evidential test and the public interest test. I can assure you that the application of that duty will be driven by a commitment to the fair and impartial application of the rule of law.”

McGrory, who is 51, is married to Brigid O’Neill, a professional ecologist and well-known singer of blues and country music. He plays the bouzouki and was a great fan of the Bothy Band and all the things “Donal Lunny has done”. They live in south Down, and they have twins, a boy and a girl.

He is of a family of four; the only boy. “It was a house where the evening meal was the focus of the day; there was plenty to be said by all of us; we were a very strong family unit.” Holidays were spent every summer in the Rosses in Donegal, where they polished their Irish. His mother Phyllis, from Kilrea in Co Derry, has also been a great influence, he says. “One of her great phrases is, ‘Never forget the bowl you were baked in’. She keeps us grounded. She is proud of all of us . . .”

His Catholic faith is important to him. “I certainly believe in a superior consciousness beyond the ephemeral existence that we have on this earth, but I would say the expression of that through any religion is equally valid,” he says. “I know some people might say religion is a force for evil to be done, but I think by and large it is more a force for good. If it has become a force for evil, certainly that is the fault of mankind. It knits the fabric of society together, it gives people a sense of community and belonging, and that can only be a force for good.”

He says there is “good and evil in the world”, adding: “Part of the role of the prosecutor is to help to contain the forces of evil within lawful boundaries. But life is more complex than simply a view that the world is made up of good people and bad people. Certainly, good people are capable of doing very bad things.”

McGRORY IS an avid reader of crime fiction. George V Higgins, Michael Connelly and James Ellroy – “he’s dark, he frightens me but I love him . . . I also love the new generation of Irish writers: Neil Jordan, John Banville, Colm Tóibín, Colum McCann and Joe O’Connor – I feel I grew up with him, I followed his columns from the Sunday Tribuneon, and read everything he has written and have told him so at one of his readings . . .”

McGrory supports Antrim in Gaelic football and hurling, but longs for some success for the county. As he lives in south Down he also “vicariously” supports Down. “GAA plays a large part in our lives; it’s a big community thing.”

His admiration for his father is obvious, but he seems to want a better life/work balance. “My father was a workaholic, an absolute perfectionist, but he paid a price for that, for the intensity of his working life. He died aged 71 but had health problems from his mid-50s, and that can be laid at the door of the intensity of his working life.”

The interview comes to an end as he has an appointment with the Lord Chief Justice. A final question: would he express his personal political convictions? McGrory laughs. “If you are asking me do I have a position on the national question or the burning constitutional issue on the island of Ireland, the answer to that question is, I may do, but that is not in any way relevant to my function as DPP – and nor do I think that it is appropriate that I express it.”