Partition 100 years later: Denis Henry, the Catholic trade unionist who was the first Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland

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ON August 15, 1921, in a low-key ceremony in the unlikely setting of Portrush Town Hall, Sir Denis Stanislaus Henry was sworn in as the first Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland.

Under the Government of Ireland Act 1920, the judiciary in Ireland was divided into two judicial bodies, the north and the south. Henry’s appointment was approved by the Northern Government in early August, along with that of Northern Ireland’s first Attorney General, Richard Best.

Until then, with the transfer of services delayed and the UK government in talks with Sinn Féin, the Northern Ireland project seemed a bit stillborn.

The Irish News mockingly said the Northern Parliament was “inherently impractical … Appointments have been made with big salaries; and we now learn that the absurd northern justice system has been sent back with the nonexistent elevation to the bench of Mr. Denis Henry, KC, as Lord Chief Justice … The government of Sir James Craig cannot undertake any work with any degree of permanence, for there can be no permanence in this score “.

Very little emphasis was placed on Henry’s Catholicism by the press. Northern Ireland’s Prime Minister James Craig said years later: “I have never yet known a prosperous country where judicial appointments have been made for religious reasons. . “

When in 1930, five years after Henry’s death, after an accusation was laid that no Catholic had been brought up to the bench, Craig replied that “since the death of our old friend Denis Henry” he had “not been possible to find a fully qualified Catholic lawyer to serve as a judge,” clearly inferring that Catholics could aspire to judicial appointments if they met the requirements.

Despite Craig’s claims to the contrary, the history of Northern Ireland’s judicial system suggests that appointments to its ranks were once barely achievable for aspiring Catholics.

After Henry’s death in 1925, no other Catholic was appointed to the highest court until 1949. Until 1969, Catholics held only six of 68 senior judicial positions.

While Henry was a Catholic, he was not a nationalist, occupying a truly unique position being a Catholic Unionist MP for Ulster before being appointed Lord Chief Justice.

While it was not uncommon for Catholics to be Unionist in their political outlook in southern and western Ireland, it was considerably less so in Ulster.

Born in Derry in 1864 to a strongly conservative and pro-Union family, he built his reputation as a lawyer on the North West Circuit of Ireland, an area stretching from Westmeath to Derry, Tyrone and Donegal. He was known as the father of the Northwest Circuit.

He became a Member of Parliament for Derry South with a by-election victory in May 1916. Once elected, he was quickly promoted to Irish legal officers; Solicitor General in 1918 and Attorney General in 1919.

As Attorney General he served during a period of great upheaval in Irish politics and society during the Anglo-Irish War of Independence. He was responsible for the introduction of the Restoration of Order in Ireland Act, which became law in August 1920, which established military courts martial with the power to impose the death penalty.

His introduction of emergency legislation and his staunch opposition to compromise with those he saw as mere rebels and criminals placed him at the top of the list to lead the justice system in the North, where similar circumstances were likely to arise. prevail.

Upon Henry’s appointment, he faced the unenviable task of ensuring that judicial appointments as well as a functioning judicial system were in place a few weeks later, on October 1, when the judicial system of Northern Ireland was to be inaugurated.

The Supreme Court in its original foundation consisted of five judges. Henry was also to oversee the appointment of officials and secure a building as a courthouse by October 1.

Much of the burden of building a court system from scratch fell on Henry who engaged in constant work, setting up the courts and their administration, involving him in discussions and negotiations without end with the governments of Belfast and London, with the Bar and Law Society, representatives of the Council, its counterparts in Dublin and many others. Added to his judicial work, it was a formidable workload.

On October 1, it was not possible to acquire a site and erect a suitable building for the new court. The government bought the site of the old potato market, and it was here on Chichester Street in Belfast that the new courthouse opened in 1933.

During the 12 years preceding the construction of the permanent courthouse, it was necessary to use temporary accommodation. The County Antrim Courthouse on Crumlin Road in Belfast was chosen by Henry as the best option available at the time.

The courthouse was not suitable for housing a permanent staff responsible for carrying out the departmental work of a permanent High Court. The working conditions of the staff were very cramped. The temporary courthouse lacked a waiting room for jurors and contained no separate accommodation for female jurors. There were also no press facilities available.

Henry had numerous meetings and discussions with Treasury officials in Dublin from September to November 1921. Members of the Judicial Officers branch of the four Dublin Courts could be transferred to the Northern Courts, with five eventually arriving from Dublin.

A total of 64 officials were appointed to the court registry, from clerk to messenger. Henry conducted many interviews personally and organized the desks, furniture, dies, seals, presses, and forms for the new bench.

The new court system for Northern Ireland came into effect on October 1 and was officially opened three weeks later on October 24. It was another day of ceremony, recalling the opening of the Northern Parliament four months earlier, another day to demonstrate the viability of Northern jurisdiction.

The judges, dressed in large robes and flared wigs, listened to Lord Chief Justice Henry say: “We will do our best to carry on the traditions handed down to us by the great judges who adorned the Irish bench”.

The judges in situ during the birth of Northern Ireland had an extremely difficult task, given the conditions at the time and the uncertainty surrounding the nascent jurisdiction. Henry has been involved in some very controversial cases as Lord Chief Justice.

In July 1922 he spoke out against the plaintiff in a landmark case (O’Hanlon v Belfast Prison Governor) challenging the legality of the Unionist Government Special Powers Act.

In the case of special agents killing three Catholics in June 1922, Henry admitted that security forces had come under fire. He dismissed the claims for compensation and concluded that the deaths were due to unlawful assembly. As Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland, Henry continued to support law enforcement.

The tremendous efforts of Henry to set up the Northern Ireland judicial system and the stress of these turbulent times took their toll on Henry, who died, following a crisis, on October 1, 1925, in the relatively young age of 61. Her son believed that the efforts of the previous four years contributed to her death.

While people praised his extraordinary legal career, many co-religionists, as nationalist MP TP O’Connor pointed out, hated “that this man of Celtic blood and of the Catholic faith sits in the ranks of the Orangemen”.

:: Cormac Moore is the author of Birth of the Border: The Impact of Partition in Ireland (Merrion Press, 2019).

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