My report on Lord Hutton
My report on Lord Hutton

By Danny Morrison

The judge's ruling was no surprise. For decades in Northern Ireland he was a guardian angel of the establishment.

Lord Hutton and I were once very close. I sat about 10 feet from him in the witness box while he quizzed me on charges of conspiracy to murder, IRA membership and kidnapping. He eventually sentenced me to eight years in jail on the testimony of a police informer I had never met. Although in the Belfast high court Hutton occasionally acquitted republicans and dismissed the appeals of soldiers, nationalists generally considered him a hanging judge and the guardian angel of soldiers and police officers.

I was amused at the response of sections of the media and British public to last week's report when he exonerated the prime minister, his defence secretary and his press officer from the BBC's allegations that the government ``sexed up'' a pre-war dossier on Iraqi WMD - and damned the BBC. Incredibly, many who followed the Hutton inquiry and observed the contradictions, the lies and the evasiveness of government representatives, expected this damning evidence to be taken into account.

Do they know anything about how the establishment works? Have they never heard of Ireland's six counties and how our poor, conscience-stricken judiciary coped with all the quandaries they faced?

At stake in Britain were the office of the prime minister (as distinct from Blair) and the judgment, integrity and morale of the British military authorities, now deep in a quagmire in Iraq.

Lord Denning, master of the rolls, the third-highest law lord in Britain, sat on the privy council with ministers of the government. To him the rights of Irish people, in particular, were subservient to the fabric of the British policing and judicial system. Denning summed this up best in his 1980 judgment when he ruled against an appeal by the Birmingham Six, whose case was that they had been beaten and made false confessions. He said: ``If the six men win, it will mean that the police were guilty of perjury; that they were guilty of violence and threats ... That was such an appalling vista that every sensible person would say, `It cannot be right that these actions should go any further'.'' There is an old caution that one shouldn't confuse lawyers with the clients they defend. However, judges almost certainly can be judged from their judgments.

Hutton first made the news in 1973 when, representing the Ministry of Defence at the inquests into those killed on Bloody Sunday, he castigated the coroner, Major Hubert O'Neill. O'Neill had suggested that the Paras had no justification for shooting the people. Hutton told him: ``It is not for you or the jury to express such wide-ranging views, particularly when a most eminent judge has spent 20 days hearing evidence and come to a very different conclusion.''

Those 20 days were a reference to the seven-week-long inquiry by Lord Chief Justice Widgery into the 13 deaths in Derry that resulted in a historic miscarriage of justice, currently being re-examined by Lord Saville. Thirty years later, when it came to the inquiry into the death of one former weapons inspector, Hutton would take seven months to absolve once again those who opened fire (in Iraq) without justification.

In 1978, he was part of the team defending Britain at the Strasbourg court against Irish government allegations that internees in 1971 were tortured. In 1981, he presided at the trial of a British soldier who ploughed at high speed into a group of people in Derry, killing two youths. Hutton advised the jury ``to consider whether you think that perhaps unconsciously some of the witnesses ... had a tendency somewhat to strengthen their evidence against the army''. He suggested that the driving, while reckless, might not have been unreasonable given the rioting and attempts to apprehend the rioters. The soldier was acquitted.

He agreed with supergrass trials, and in 1984 sentenced 10 men to some of the longest sentences ever imposed, a total of 1001 years, on the word of a paid informer, Robert Quigley, who was granted immunity from prosecution.

In 1986, he acquitted an RUC reservist, Nigel Hegarty, who was charged with unlawfully killing John Downes at a rally. When the RUC opened fire with plastic bullets on civilians at a sit-down protest, Downes picked up a small stick and was running towards two officers when Hegarty killed him from about three yards. Despite Hegarty offering no evidence, Hutton speculated that he had acted ``probably almost instinctively'' and that, given ``the stress of the moment and the obvious determination of the deceased'', Hegarty's response was not unreasonable.

In the trial of two Royal Marines charged with murdering Fergal Caraher in a shooting incident at Cullyhanna in 1990, he said he could not rely on the accounts given by the civilian witnesses for the prosecution or on those given by the accused and a fellow soldier, so he acquitted the soldiers even though he believed they might have been lying.

And he was involved in the Brian Nelson affair. Just a week before Nelson's trial, which almost certainly would have exposed British collusion with loyalist death squads, Hutton and the trial judge, Basil Kelly, met the then prime minister, John Major. Nelson was offered a deal to plead guilty to sample charges, which he did. He served just a few years.

In an episode of the BBC's Yes, Prime Minister, the PM, Jim Hacker, is furious when someone leaks to the press that he has manipulated his solicitor general to suppress a political memoir, not on security grounds but because it contained a chapter about him, The Two Faces of Jim Hacker. He wants the culprit found and convicted. His cabinet secretary, Sir Humphrey Appleby, rushes to set up a leak inquiry. Hacker stops him and suggests they lean on the judge to guarantee success.

The wise Sir Humphrey suggests that it is better to find a judge that doesn't need to be leaned on.

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