Oath of Loyalty: Northern Ireland Queen's Counsel

– in the House of Lords at 2:44 pm on 26th June 2000.

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Photo of Lord Lamont of Lerwick Lord Lamont of Lerwick Conservative 2:44 pm, 26th June 2000

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What action they intend to take following the ruling of Mr Justice Kerr on 2nd May in relation to the declaration which Queen's Counsel in Northern Ireland have since 1995 been required to make that they will,

"well and truly serve Queen Elizabeth II".

Photo of Lord Irvine of Lairg Lord Irvine of Lairg Lord Chancellor, Lord Chancellor's Department, Lord Chancellor

My Lords, with the support of the Lord Chief Justice, the Bar Council in Northern Ireland, and the Secretary of State, and with the consent of Her Majesty, the declaration to be made by new Queen's Counsel will now be:

"I do sincerely promise and declare that I will well and truly serve all whom I may lawfully be called upon to serve in the office of one of Her Majesty's Counsel learned in the law according to the best of my skill and understanding".

Senior counsel in Northern Ireland will therefore continue to be called "Queen's Counsel".

Photo of Lord Lamont of Lerwick Lord Lamont of Lerwick Conservative

My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor for that clarification. He has resolved the matter, although it might have been better if he could have answered the question when I put it to him three weeks ago, instead of giving a highly economical reply. I welcome what he has said today.

Photo of Lord Irvine of Lairg Lord Irvine of Lairg Lord Chancellor, Lord Chancellor's Department, Lord Chancellor

My Lords, the noble Lord's previous Question was based on a false assumption. His second Question makes a false point. No decision had been taken to change the declaration when I answered the previous Question on this matter.

Photo of Lord Hylton Lord Hylton Crossbench

My Lords, does the noble and learned Lord appreciate that his reply will be widely welcomed, because it is in line with the change made not so long ago in the oath required of new constables in the police service in Northern Ireland and with the need for state institutions to be neutral between different traditions in Northern Ireland?

Photo of Lord Irvine of Lairg Lord Irvine of Lairg Lord Chancellor, Lord Chancellor's Department, Lord Chancellor

My Lords, the recent decision to change the declaration was taken in a spirit of compromise to resolve a continuing dispute in Northern Ireland without compromising the substantive meaning of the declaration. That has been achieved.

Photo of Lord Waddington Lord Waddington Conservative

My Lords, does the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor acknowledge that some of us on this side of the House--certainly myself--were surprised by the brusqueness of the reply that he gave to my noble friend on 6th June? Would it not have been better if he had dealt then with the thrust of my noble friend's remarks and told us whether he was still of the view that those who aspired to be Queen's Counsel should expect to have to declare their loyalty to the Queen?

Photo of Lord Irvine of Lairg Lord Irvine of Lairg Lord Chancellor, Lord Chancellor's Department, Lord Chancellor

My Lords, I am sure that the noble Lord knows perfectly well that the decision to change the declaration was taken in the context of settling outstanding litigation, as well as having regard to the best interests of Northern Ireland. There was no occasion to elaborate further than I did on the previous Question on this matter.

Photo of Lord McConnell Lord McConnell Crossbench

My Lords, will the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor acknowledge that many people will be very relieved that the position of Her Majesty the Queen is not to be substantially altered in the appointment of new Queen's Counsel? Indeed, it would be quite absurd to be Queen's Counsel and not pursue any allegiance to the Queen.

Photo of Lord Irvine of Lairg Lord Irvine of Lairg Lord Chancellor, Lord Chancellor's Department, Lord Chancellor

My Lords, as I said in answer to an earlier question, senior counsel in Northern Ireland will continue to be called "Queen's Counsel". The obligation to serve the Crown when required is unaffected by the new declaration and Northern Ireland is better off with one dispute fewer.

Photo of Lord Lamont of Lerwick Lord Lamont of Lerwick Conservative

My Lords, I welcome what the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor has said, but will he confirm that in the hearing that was brought against him by two republican barristers, Seamus Treacy and Barry MacDonald, Mr Justice Kerr said on 2nd May that his position was,

"based on a mistaken understanding of the true facts", and "unreasonable" in law and that he had to pay the costs of the case?

Photo of Lord Irvine of Lairg Lord Irvine of Lairg Lord Chancellor, Lord Chancellor's Department, Lord Chancellor

My Lords, in 1997, I decided to retain the existing declaration in the belief that, after a Bar Council report--the Elliott report--the judges in the High Court had been consulted and remained united in the view that the declaration should remain in its then form. That is what I had been informed by the Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland.

In a recent judicial review, to which the noble Lord referred, in the High Court in Belfast, the judge held that I had been misinformed. The judges had been consulted earlier but they had not been consulted again, as I had been informed, after the Elliott report was published. On that basis alone--that my decision was based on a mistaken understanding of the facts--the decision was quashed. But all other arguments--that the declaration was unlawful, discriminatory and contrary to the Belfast agreement--were rejected.