Northern Ireland news

Barry McCaffrey: How I wanted to thank Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan

Coming face to face with Sir Declan Morgan, journalist Barry McCaffrey tells how, bound by professional protocol, he never got to thank the outgoing Lord Chief Justice for his ruling in the case taken by himself and Trevor Birney over their arrest in 2018, despite an overwhelming desire to do so

Journalists Barry McCaffrey (left) and Trevor Birney with the outgoing Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan
Barry McCaffrey

AS children one of the first lessons we are taught is to say 'thank you' to those who acts we are grateful for.

For three years Trevor Birney and I have thanked many involved in our case.

However, there was one person we really wanted to thank and hoped it would have been possible now.

We have been visitors to the Royal Courts of Justice many times since August 31 2018.

Today's meeting though is a long way from our previous appearances.

The door to the meeting room opens quietly without warning or pomp.

Sir Declan Morgan sports the obligatory face covering rather than a scarlet robe.

We have been in the same room many times before but have never actually spoken.

I suspect the first time Northern Ireland’s Lord Chief Justice (LCJ) heard our names was on the afternoon of August 31 2018.

That was the Friday our lawyers launched a court challenge against the legality of the PSNI’s decision to search our homes and offices.

We couldn’t be in court that day as we were being held in police cells in nearby May Street.

Over the following three-year period we would come face to face with the LCJ every three months.

Throughout all those hearings Trevor and I never got to utter a single word.

Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey at the Royal Courts of Justice as their case was heard. Picture by Hugh Russell

When our case opened in May 2019 our professional and personal reputations literally went on trial.

During our meetings I watched the LCJ for the slightest hint of encouragement, but was unable to glean anything.

On the final day of the hearing on May 31 2019 Sir Declan took the unusual step of delivering an almost immediate verdict when a packed courtroom was told that in their esteemed opinion Trevor and myself had acted entirely lawfully.

I shook hands with as many people as possible in court that day.

But there was no opportunity to thank the judges.

I asked my legal team if it would be appropriate to send a card of thanks but was told this was not the done thing.

Here we now were in a room with the LCJ, just us and him.

Was this the occasion to set the record straight?

Sadly, no. It was not to be.

Professional courtesy and the rules of the law meant we still couldn’t discuss the case that had bound us together.

It was the elephant in the room and I was struggling stop myself blurting out an inappropriate expression of the debt of gratitude that I felt.

It will be exactly three years to the day since our worlds collided in that Belfast court room.

As the interview came to a close the cameraman inquired if we could have a photograph together.

Each of us posed awkwardly, not wanting to embarrass the others.

We thanked Sir Declan for his time and wished him well in retirement.

In our campaign to defend press freedom Trevor and I had found ourselves photographed with presidents, pop stars and Oscar-winning directors.

But the photograph we shared today and the unspoken words that remain are the memories that I will hold most dear.

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