Obituary: Lord Lowry

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AT FIRST glance, Robert Lowry, for 17 years the Lord Chief Justice in Northern Ireland, was a child of the Ulster Unionist establishment. His father, a former Unionist Attorney-General, was a High Court judge; it should be noted, however, that his mother was a member of the literary Lynd family, whose most distinguished member was the radical nationalist essayist Robert Lynd (1879-1949). Lowry was educated at the Royal Belfast Academical Institution - like so many of Northern Ireland's judges - and at Jesus College, Cambridge, where he took a double first in Classics.

Lowry's father displayed a sharp parochial anti-Catholic animosity, which was not dulled by wider sympathies engendered by the Second World War: for Lowry himself matters were very different. His wartime service - he was an officer in the Royal Irish Fusiliers - imbued him with a warm-hearted sympathy towards his Irish Catholic comrades in arms. He always remained proud of this association and maintained such connections in later life.

In 1947 Robert Lowry was called to the Northern Ireland Bar; he took silk in 1956, and was appointed a judge of the Northern Ireland High Court in 1964. In 1971 he was appointed Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland; inevitably he became an IRA target, narrowly missing death on at least three occasions.

In 1982, having just survived a hail of IRA bullets, he proceeded to give a planned lecture at Queen's University, Belfast. The incident epitomised Lowry: he was determined that terrorism would not disrupt the operation of legal clarity.

In celebrated cases, he freed Gerry Adams in 1978 after ruling that there was insufficient evidence that he was a member of the IRA; in 1984 he helped destroy the so-called "supergrass system" in the Gilmour case when he aquitted 35 defendants. Many of those involved had been held on remand for over two years. His ruling in DPP v Maxwell (1978), which dealt with the position of aiders and abetters, was his most important more general ruling. He became a peer in 1979 and a Law Lord in 1988.

In 1975-76, as Sir Robert Lowry, he chaired the Northern Ireland Constitutional Convention. He presided over the Convention's public sittings with great patience: during one particularly dreary meeting he stayed in the chair for five hours. Behind the scenes, with the assistance of advisers, Lowry tried to reconcile the conflicting views of the political parties on the type of administration which would prove viable.

There is no doubt that he approached this task with the utmost seriousness: he went out of his way to be courteous to Ulster's warring politicians. On his appointment as chairman, all 78 Convention members received a personal hand-written letter from him. He used his retiring room to socialise amiably with the political leadership of all the parties.

He enjoyed giving learned rulings on procedural points. Following one such occasion, he quipped "20 guineas" in a lawyerly aside intended only to be heard by his clerks but relayed to the amusement of the whole Convention by a microphone which had been inadvertently left on.

The impression persists, however, that Lowry was not temperamentally, or indeed, professionally ideally suited to the task. He was always conscious of the identity of his position as Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland's Supreme Court, and was unwilling to compromise his dignity by cajoling, manipulating and beseeching Northern Ireland's politicians to reach an agreement.

He did, however, prepare a scheme for voluntary coalition, as distinct from imposed power-sharing. The circumstances which attended the birth of this proposal became the subject of bitter controversy on the United Unionist side - only William Craig and a few of his supporters were attracted to the idea. It is perhaps worth nothing that the most prominent figure in this small group was the young David Trimble, today the First Minister Designate of Northern Ireland.

In 1985 the Anglo-Irish Agreement was signed between London and Dublin. It was widely assumed on the Dublin side - and they were probably encouraged by some senior British politicians and officials - that the single judge, non-jury Diplock Courts, which were used in terrorist cases, would become three judge courts and, in time, a Republic of Ireland judge would be included on the bench.

For Unionists this would have been tangible proof of a joint authority system. Lowry, however, vigorously defended the quality of the justice dispensed by the existing system and successfully opposed change, and by this stage his reputation made it difficult for the Crown's senior Law Officers to be anything other than swayed by his testimony.

Had Lowry not won this battle, it is doubtful if the political space for the Belfast Agreement of 1998 - which depended on a Unionist belief that joint authority was not part of British Government strategy - would have existed. Lowry's success - almost the only example of a successful rearguard action of this type - owed much to the fact that it was England, and not Northern Ireland, which had seen the most celebrated Troubles-related debacles for the legal system in such cases as the Birmingham Six.

Robert Lowry was a keen sportsman, a good golfer and cricketer; in later days, his interests in equine culture enhanced his links with leading figures in Southern Irish political life including Charles Haughey.

Robert Lynd Erskine Lowry, judge: born Belfast 30 January 1919; called to the Bar of Northern Ireland 1947; QC (NI) 1956; Judge of the High Court of Justice (NI) 1964-71; PC (NI) 1971; Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland 1971-88; PC 1974; a Lord of Appeal in Ordinary 1988-94; created 1979 Baron Lowry; married 1948 Mary Martin (died 1987; three daughters), 1994 Barbara Calvert QC; died London 15 January 1999.