DPP: I enjoyed learning Gaelic in Scotland, where the speakers are Presbyterian

In final part of interview with Ben Lowry, Northern Ireland’s chief prosecutor Barra McGrory talks about the Irish language, his time as DPP and why his office issued a legal warning to the media:

In a recent BBC interview, Northern Ireland’s chief prosecutor was interviewed by the veteran broadcaster Eamonn Mallie in Irish.

Queen's University, where Barra McGrory studied Irish language and history, before later studying law

Queen’s University, where Barra McGrory studied Irish language and history, before later studying law

Barra McGrory is fluent in the language, but it is not his first tongue.

His primary degree at Queen’s University was in the Irish language and classical history, during which he studied Irish and Scots Gaelic. It was after that that he converted to law.

“At the risk of offending those colleagues of mine who went straight into law,” he says, “I feel that if you do something else first you maybe have a bit more of a rounded view of life … and that helps.”

Did Mr McGrory find Northern Ireland a cold house for Irish speakers when he was younger?

Barra McGrory, director of Public Prosecutions for Northern Ireland, speaks to Ben Lowry of the News Letter in his Belfast office.
Pic Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker

Barra McGrory, director of Public Prosecutions for Northern Ireland, speaks to Ben Lowry of the News Letter in his Belfast office. Pic Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker

“Actually no if I’m being quite honest. My father was an Irish language enthusiast, my mother wasn’t an Irish speaker, but my sisters and I all speak Irish.

“My relationships with my sisters, some of them, is through Irish only.

“I’ve a sister who has an Irish degree from Trinity and another from Coleraine so we’re all enthusiastic about the language.”

Mr McGrory knows Scots-Gaelic too.

“Northern Irish Irish is very similar to Scots-Gaelic, unlike some of the dialects around the southern west coast of Ireland.”

Can he understand them all? “I can,” he replies, “and found Scots-Gaelic easier to understand than Munster Irish for example.”

Learning Scots-Gaelic was particularly interesting, Mr McGrory says.

“Obviously the Irish language context in the north of Ireland is very much from the nationalist world but when I went to Scotland to learn Gaelic as part of my degree, I encountered an entirely different cultural background to the language where those who speak the language are Presbyterian by and large, though some of the islands and Barra [an island in the Outer Hebrides] would be Catholic.

“But I went to Skye which is a very strongly Presbyterian place and it was a very interesting experience for me as a young student to see that, my goodness, the Gaelic language issues can be, you know, British and unionist and Presbyterian, and sit comfortably side by side.”

The Irish language has become a big political issue, he concedes.

“I regret that as someone who grew up in a world in which it was just simple a matter of cultural interest and wasn’t a big political issue, but I make no comment on the political debate around the language. I think that would be inappropriate other than to say that it is a fairly recent development.”

When Mr McGrory steps down in November, he will have spent six years in post. He has enjoyed “every day”.

“Every day has been a challenge, every day has been a good day and we’ve done a lot of work outside of what we’ve discussed [in this interview].

“We’ve done a lot of work on victims, we’ve set up a victims’ care unit, we’ve moved with the times in terms of the re-focusing of the justice system to take much more account of the views of victims.

“I’ve done a lot of work on sentencing, across the board by the way, not just in terms of the sentencing in terrorist cases, but I’ve been over the Court of Appeal 40-45 times arguing points of law on sentencing which have brought sentences up considerably in certain areas.”

Mr McGrory adds: “We’ve also done considerable work in terms of our own approach say to sex abuse cases, set up a special unit.

“A lot of work, by the way, with politicians in terms of being more open and accountable and explaining decisions and in helping them understand and their constituents understand why we’ve come to decisions in all sorts of cases, from sex abuse cases to manslaughter cases, to everyday cases.

“And also in terms of engaged with politicians who are responsible for bringing in legislation which affect the criminal justice system to make it more efficient.”

The legacy of the Troubles has been “extremely difficult”, he says.

“I get concerned that it has distracted from the really good work that we’ve done as a Public Prosecution Service in the context of the ongoing justice situation.

“The PPS is a child of the Good Friday Agreement in terms of the criminal justice review. I think what it was intended the PPS would achieve has in many cases been achieved. Nobody expected that the PPS would have to deal with legacy when it was set up.”

• I had to issue warning about bias claims

Last year, amid controversy over soldier prosecutions, the Public Prosecution Service contacted media outlets about reports that, it said, claimed McGrory was not impartial.

If the claims were repeated, “aggravated and exemplary” damages would be sought in court, it warned.

Was such a threat appropriate from a public servant? “I felt that the remarks that were made were wholly inappropriate,” says Mr McGrory. “They attacked my personal integrity in that they suggested that I deliberately engaged in a political vendetta against individuals who have been the subject of prosecutions recently and … that it was some form of grossly improper conduct on my part.

“Not only is that personally insulting but it significantly diminishes public confidence in how I perform my role and if that happens then the whole office is damaged so I felt that I needed to speak out and take the appropriate action in order to mark the fact that that sort of viewpoint is simply not acceptable.”

But did that not clash with something Mr McGrory told the BBC – that he wasn’t upset about himself, but about the insult to his office. In which case why care about claims about him?

“Well, you attack me, you attack the office. While I may be engaged in a number of decisions, even in those decisions they go through layers of examination and advice before they get to me so you know, very senior prosecutors will have recommended prosecutions in these cases to me before the prosecutions are finally determined and in many other cases I am actually not personally involved at all, so I do think that an attack on my integrity does by implication attack the office.”

But does he accept the rough and tumble element of a senior public role?

“Totally. And I’ve no difficulty with newspapers or individuals saying we think that was a crazy decision to prosecute that … I’ll stand over my decision in any case, but when you attack a prosecutor’s personal motivation and integrity then you attack the justice system and I think that must be addressed.”

• Unable to comment

Asked about Pamela Achison, former Deputy Director of Public Prosecutions, who was asked to stay at home over a prosecution decision, Mr McGrory says he is unable to discuss the matter. In April Ms Atchison’s lawyers said she had an “unimpeachable record as a prosecutor” and would like “to clarify her role but is constrained by current circumstances”.

Links to earlier parts of interview:

• Other parts to DPP interview:

Part Four: Pastor McConnell’s remarks were sufficiently offensive to prosecute

Part Three: I have appealed lenient jail terms in dissident terrorist cases

Part Two: We are not using legacy directions against the security forces capriciously

Part One: The state is at disadvantage in Troubles probes but there is no prosecution bias against security forces