Northern Ireland news

Loughinisland: Tetchy exchanges in packed courtroom during challenge to High Court judge

Mr Justice Bernard McCloskey

SUCH was the interest in yesterday's unusual legal exchange that the entire hearing had to moved from the modest judicial review court to the larger and more formal high court in Belfast's Royal Courts of Justice.

Both press benches were packed with media and the public gallery was without an empty seat, as former Director of Public Prosecutions Barra McGrory made an argument for High Court judge Mr Justice Bernard McCloskey to recuse himself

due to a potential perception of 'unconscious bias'.

'Reasonably-informed, fair-minded observer' was the catchphrase of the day, referring to a hypothetical person and what they might make of Mr Justice McCloskey's previous professional relationship with one of the police officers involved in the case against Police Ombudsman Dr Michael Maguire.

A tetchy exchange between Mr McGrory and Mr Justice McCloskey heard the phrase mentioned more than 40 times.

The senior judge has already delivered a scathing preliminary judgment in the Loughinisland case, saying Dr Maguire went beyond his statutory powers in reaching conclusions of collusion in relation to the massacre.

However, last Friday as he was expected to quash the watchdog report there was a late challenge to the ruling.

Legal arguments were submitted claiming a possible perception of "bias" would warrant the judge recusing himself even at this late stage.

Earlier this month The Irish News reported that Mr Justice McCloskey had represented former Assistant Chief Constable Raymond White in a similar 2001 case against then ombudsman Nuala O'Loan in relation to a report about the RUC's Omagh bomb investigation.

However, Mr Justice McCloskey told the packed court yesterday he had no memory of the case until it was drawn to his attention, saying it was some considerable time ago.

Mr McGrory set out the argument that the high court judge should recuse himself, with frequent interruption by the judge and exchanges between the pair at times combatative.

Having been out of the fray during his six-year tenure as Northern Ireland's senior prosecutor, the QC seemed relaxed and at home in a wig and gown in the formal surroundings of the historic court building.

He told the court "a reasonably informed observer" might find it "difficult to accept" the judge's assertion that he did not recall his involvement in a case related to such a high-profile atrocity as Omagh.

The case has been adjourned for a week while Mr Justice McCloskey, who robustly defended his position, considers the matters raised.

Next Friday he will either recuse himself or deliver his final findings, in what is expected to be a judgment delivered to another packed court.

Emma Rogan, whose father Adrian was murdered in the Loughinisland attack, did not comment on the substantive issues of the case outside court but said the families were thankful for support given to them.

"Our families are united. It was great to see such support from the whole community, victims and campaigners alike. We take great comfort in their support and we look forward to their support again when we hear the outcome of this judgment," she said.

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