Keeping faith in the law

Martin O’Brien meets controversial Attorney General John Francis Larkin

"Do you court controversy?” I ask John Francis Larkin, QC, the first ever local Catholic to hold the post of Attorney General for Northern Ireland.

“Good heavens, no,” he replies.

He would not have been surprised by the question posed during a wide-ranging and extremely rare interview in his offices in central Belfast not far from St Malachy’s Church where he regularly attends daily Mass during Lent.

A quick internet search would reveal that from abortion to gay adoption and ‘Troubles’ related inquests this brilliant 50-year-old senior counsel and former youthful Reid Professor of Criminal Law at TCD has been no stranger to controversy since he took up the four year appointment three and a half years ago.

Last year when he offered to help the Assembly investigate a newly-opened Marie Stopes clinic in Belfast he was reminded of comments he made in a BBC debate in 2008, two years before his appointment, in which he said destroying a highly disabled child in the womb was like “putting a bullet in the back of the head of the child two days after it’s born”.

The controversies appear to stem mainly from Mr Larkin’s maximalist approach to the post and the potential for tension between his respective responsibilities of being both chief legal adviser to the Northern Ireland Executive and protector of “the public interest in matters of law.”

This can result in him one day being the Executive’s most senior representative in the courts and the next representing a citizen who claims an arm of government has violated his human rights.

It is an issue that may have been addressed in a still confidential review of the Office of the Attorney General requested by the First and deputy First Ministers, conducted by a senior Scottish jurist, Dame Elish Angiolini and now being considered.


Mr Larkin has demonstrated a steely determination to assert the independence of his office in a way that has raised questions about the powers granted to the Office of the Attorney General.

Last month in the Assembly Peter Robinson told SDLP MLA Alex Attwood that he had “put his finger on one of the key issues” when Mr Attwood asked the First Minister if he thought “in retrospect”  that “the role that the Executive gave to the Attorney General  was too generous and now needs to be constrained”.

Mr Robinson had told another MLA that he and Martin McGuinness “have a fairly settled view” on whether to reappoint Mr Larkin or recruit a new Attorney General next May when his term comes to an end, and hoped to make an announcement within weeks. Had he any idea what that “settled view” was?


“No and it would be quite wrong to get into that because as we have discussed I am independent and the term comes to an end and it wouldn’t be appropriate for me to get closely involved in trying to negotiate some future term.”

Would he like to be reappointed? “It would be quite wrong for me to express a public preference on that.”

Are they trying to clip his wings? “I have absolutely no idea.” He revealed that he had been spoken to about and had responded to the Angiolini Review.

Mr Larkin clearly loves his prestigious job which commands a salary of almost £200,000 (€240,000) a year, the equivalent to that of a Lord Justice of Appeal but a significant drop in what he would have earned as a top QC.

“This is the most fascinating legal job in this jurisdiction. It’s an endlessly absorbing and interesting job. It is a profound privilege to be able to serve the people of Northern Ireland as Attorney. If I am offered the opportunity to continue to serve I will obviously reflect on that.”

John Larkin is married to Christine with two children. He is supremely confident and without arrogance, widely learned with a razor-sharp intellect and quick wit and is engaging company. His words have the precision one would expect from a lawyer at the top of his profession. He doesn’t strike one as being the type who would ever be lulled into saying anything he doesn’t want to share or waffle about things he doesn’t know about.


The story of his upbringing is uplifting. Brought up in West Belfast with his two sisters he is the only son of John and Frances Larkin.

“My father is a man of profound unostentatious faith, the most rigorous intellect, the smartest man I know. My mother has a heart the size of a mountain in terms of Christian compassion. That’s where it starts.

“I am profoundly thankful to the core of my being that I had the huge advantage of being brought up in a school of love with parents who were profoundly Christian in every aspect of their lives.”

The Attorney General is open about the great religious, theological and philosophical influences on his formation.

As  a  teenager before the internet age at St Mary’s Christian  Brothers Grammar School he recalls going to Galway for Blessed Pope John Paul’s Youth Mass in 1979 and being “profoundly influenced by that hugely charismatic and, as we increasingly know, saintly Pontiff.” His successor Joseph Ratzinger was also a big influence as a theologian long before he became Pope: “A man of towering intellect with a huge output which never fails to challenge, stimulate and inspire me.”

On Pope Francis, he quotes what Chinese leader Chou En Lai is reported to have replied when Richard Nixon asked his views on the impact of the French Revolution: “It’s too soon to tell.”

“I think it would be wrong to extrapolate from a certain informality of gesture and accessibility that that betokens some dramatic shift in doctrine. It cannot betoken some dramatic shift in doctrine because doctrine doesn’t shift dramatically.”

Asked about thinkers and writers who have shaped his worldview he found little or nothing in Ireland before citing C.S. Lewis “accessible and hugely valuable” and Fr Aidan Nichols OP. But with his increased facility in languages (French and German) he discovered the great Jesuit writers Henri de Lubac and Hans Urs von Balthasar seeing in both “great intellectual ambition.” He was particularly struck by de Lubac’s four-fold sense of Scripture, his writing on biblical exegesis and his examination of people like Pico della Mirandola underlining “a sense of the universality of Christian Revelation”.

Sense of justice

He was also greatly impressed by de Lubac’s sense of justice and his defence of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin against “unjust imputations”.

So what role does religious faith play in the life of the Attorney General?

“I am hugely uncomfortable about talking about faith. I’m never quite sure that is entirely due to a sense of what I think every Christian must be aware of – their sinfulness, their brokenness, their inadequacy in the eyes of God – or whether it’s because these are not things comfortably spoken of in the contemporary era.”

He adds: “I haven’t worked out in my own mind what is the dominant theme. I like to think it is a just sense of humility but it may be that Christians should speak more about their faith.”

When asked, John Larkin is refreshingly open about his faith while stressing his own inadequacy.

Asked to sum up his belief system succinctly he says: “Catholic although inadequate.”

How do you pray, I ask: “The short answer is not enough and with difficulty. I pray like the tax collector.”  (Luke 18:13)

He confides: “One of the great treats for me in the last 20 years has been to be exposed to the biblical writings of the French poet Paul Claudel. It’s often said that Scripture has only been discovered in Catholic terms in very recent years and that’s not true. Here is a figure of the pre-Second Vatican Council Church absolutely saturated in the Bible.”


Invited to communicate a sense of the centrality of the Eucharist in his life he’s not sure he can.

“I am constantly aware of my failings as a Christian. The only thing I can say is that I am always a different person walking out of Mass at the end than when I arrived. And that is even if I am dissatisfied by aspects of the celebration, even if I have been distracted by seeing people that I know in the congregation or the million and one thoughts that steal into  one’s mind.”

He sees the law as a vocation. But is he a better lawyer because of his faith? “That depends how you define lawyering.” If he was working in a multinational commercial firm where “vast profits were the bottom line” then Christian faith might be an obstacle. However he stresses that “in the Western tradition the law has always had its founding in morality. And from Sophocles’ Antigone and that great dialogue between positive law and the unwritten laws which Antigone evokes we have always thought of law as having necessarily a relationship with the moral and therefore a faith. And this need not be the Christian faith”.

Strongly pro-life

Mr Larkin is strongly pro-life and is against abortion defined as the direct intentional destruction of human life in the womb.

This must be distinguished, he says, from “action which is necessary to avoid the death or risk to the life of the expectant mother which has, as an undesired consequence, the death of the unborn child.” And that, he says, “is not only licit in terms of Catholic moral theology but is also absolutely lawful.” He cites as an example the action that should have been taken to save the late Savita Halappanavar in Galway a year ago.

Asked if he regrets his 2008 comments in a BBC Sunday Sequence discussion that destroying a highly disabled child in the womb was akin to “putting a bullet in the back of the head of the child” after its  birth he recalled that I was there [as producer of the programme] and was aware of the context.

“My interlocutor on that occasion was a politician who at that time was a member of a political party which had, shall we say, a close but ambiguous relationship with a terrorist organisation [the UVF] that was not shy about putting bullets in the back of people’s heads. It was an entirely legitimate debate tactic to invite her to explain the difference between death shortly before birth and shortly after birth.”

He was referring to Dawn Purvis, then a Progressive Unionist Party MLA and now director of the Marie Stopes Clinic in Belfast.


He added: “Obviously if one is discussing these issues with someone who has experienced trauma in a different context one doesn’t use the language that one uses in debate with someone whose political party has an ambiguous relationship with a terrorist organisation.

“My view is that someone in that position is well capable or ought to be of standing up for himself or herself. Let’s go back to the fundamental issue. Is it different to kill a child one minute before he is born and one minute after? And in my view that is very simply answered no.”

In keeping with convention the Attorney General declines to say anything about any advice he has given to ministers or even to reveal if any specific advice has been sought on issues.

When I press him on whether his strong pro-life views mean he is too close to give independent dispassionate advice to ministers on current hot topics such as the draft abortion guidelines being currently revised in the North Mr Larkin has his answer ready.

“I don’t think so. It’s like a Jewish surgeon who will operate with professionalism and integrity on a Palestinian patient even if that Palestinian patient, to that Jewish surgeon’s personal knowledge, has been involved in hideous attacks on Israeli citizens. There is no point giving advice on the basis of what one might wish or not wish the law to be.”


“The quality of the legal research one way or the other is unaffected by the nature of the particular belief that a person may hold. The Jewish surgeon is going to be guided by the technical route towards the bicuspid valve or whatever. He is not going to be directed by his religious observances or his political views as to the vileness of the acts of his patient.”

Invited to reflect on the state of Northern Ireland more than 15 years after the Good Friday Agreement Mr Larkin says sometimes “I have to restrain myself from rubbing my eyes” when he sees particular ministers working together.

“Yes of course there are disagreements but it is remarkable to me how we have got as far as we have. It’s very far from perfect and the Secretary of State and maybe the Prime Minister says it’s not enough. I think there is huge force in the argument that to have so many of the parliamentarians represented in the government isn’t particularly conducive to good adversarial politics. There may be a role for giving more space for an opposition. I can see the force in those arguments.”

Truth mechanism

Asked if he thinks some truth mechanism should emerge from the Haass negotiations he would give “a definite no to a South African model”.

“However, we are now at some  remove from the 1998 Belfast Agreement  and I think it’s time to think about whether or not  we should be bringing a general process into play whereby the possibility of prosecutions would cease with respect to Troubles related offences. That would also go, I suggest, for civil proceedings, enquiries and inquests related to Troubles related deaths.

“What I favour is taking law out of the equation so no prosecutions, no enquiries, no inquests, no civil proceedings. But at the same time providing a platform for facilitating access to records so that the individuals can find out and can be assisted in producing their narratives of what occurred. We will never find out what happened in every case. We were never going to find out what happened in every case. I am under no illusions that stopping prosecutions, stopping enquiries stopping inquests will encourage some people to open up as is sometimes thought. I don’t think they will.

“I don’t think people who have ordered murders will want the inevitable social stigma of coughing up to that.

“This would require legislation. This would be called different things. This would not be an amnesty. It would be a stay on criminal and civil proceedings, inquests and enquiries. At present inquests are available and they do technically a very good job in relation to discrete deaths but they don’t give a broader picture. And those that they focus on at the moment are deaths caused by state actors.”

He realises that for this to work properly legislation in Britain would be required and when I suggest the Republic also he acknowledges the point and wonders what the view there would be.

When it is put to him that relatives will say killers, whether state or paramilitary, will get off scot-free the Attorney replies: “That’s why it’s very important to go back to the timeframe of 1998. As any criminal lawyer will tell you, as the years pass the prospect of proceedings and the prospect of successful criminal proceedings grows less and less with each passing year.”

Asked if he sees any signs of recovery in the Church in Ireland he “doesn’t know”. He didn’t watch Father Ted but has sadly concluded that the Church evinces too much of the “cynicism, inanity and degeneracy” exemplified in the three main characters.

“The clerical element [of the Church] was excessively pastoral and insufficiently apostolic.

“It’s the function of the apostles to judge and internally lay down the law. But they didn’t do that and took refuge in a kind of bubble-gum pastoral approach and shuffled people around.

“Canon Law was only used for marriage tribunals and while it may be validly criticised it was worth observing that the Irish Church has historically been an antinomian Church.”

John Larkin is frank, open and generous with his time.

Asked if his faith ever “wobbled” he discloses that earlier in his life his faith was “challenged profoundly”, declining to go into details.

He says his faith “is different now” and one senses it is all the more precious for that.