Henry Barron: Irish judge who led the inquiry into the Dublin and Monaghan bombings

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The Independent Online

Henry Barron was a Dublin judge who had the twin distinctions of becoming the first Jewish member of the Irish Republic's Supreme Court and of granting the country's first ever divorce.

But his most notable task came after his retirement, when he delivered an official report into a 1974 wave of bombings in Dublin and elsewhere in which 33 civilians lost their lives.

While loyalist paramilitants from Northern Ireland were certainly involved, the huge political question was whether British agents were implicated in the attacks, and if so at what level.

Barron concluded that individual members of the security forces had played a part in the bombings. But he was unable to say whether or not more senior members of the security or intelligence worlds were part of what would have been an act of undeclared war between Britain and Ireland. His conclusion was that involvement by the Northern Ireland authorities was "not proven". But he pointedly added that it "must remain a suspicion", partly because those authorities had provided only very limited cooperation to his inquiry.

His considered judgement came as a disappointment to many in the Republic who had hoped and expected that the judge would confirm their entrenched belief that there had been British collusion in the attacks. It was a measure of the judge's stature and his thoroughness in carrying out the inquiry that, although there was some grumbling that he had "let the British off the hook", there was no loud chorus accusing him of delivering a whitewash.

Instead, the widespread reaction was that he had done his best with the material available to him. Unexpectedly, his report criticised the Irish authorities, but it by no means exonerated the British state, and indeed emphasised what the judge clearly regarded as a most frustrating lack of cooperation from the UK.

His years of effort shed much light on the events of 1974, but, as is often the case with such inquiries, provided no definitive account of that murky period and the deaths it produced. The same may happen when the long-awaited report on Bloody Sunday, when 14 people died in Londonderry in 1972, appears within the next few months. There are predictions that it, too, may not succeed in providing clarity and closure.

Henry Barron was born in 1928. His father, who worked as a civil engineer on Indian railways, sent him to a Protestant boarding school at the age of six, and then to St Columba's school in Dublin. He excelled at Trinity College, Dublin, taking a first-class honours degree in law and winning a prestigious scholarship. In his younger days he also excelled as a sporting all-rounder, playing cricket, hockey, tennis and golf. In later life he and his wife, Rosalind, made a formidable bridge pair.

As a junior counsel he became expert in contract law and after taking silk in the 1970s he was a particularly busy senior counsel. He became a High Court judge in 1982 and a Supreme Court justice in 1997.

He was the first Irish judge to grant a divorce, following many years of legal and political wrangling until a constitutional referendum finally established divorce as a civil right.

As a judge, Barron was viewed as having an unusually strong streak of independence. Justin Keating, a former government minister, said of him: "Mr Justice Barron is nobody's man, except his own. He has the reputation of being absolutely straight and upright, and of being the possessor of a very powerful legal mind."

He stood down from the Supreme Court in 2000 after three years, only to be plucked from retirement within months to head the Dublin and Monaghan bombings inquiry after its original head stepped down on health grounds. His report concluded that loyalists had carried out the bombings primarily as a reaction to a 1974 agreement which held out the prospect of a greater role for the Irish government in Northern Ireland. (In today's much-changed situation, loyalist paramilitants have come to accept an even greater Dublin role in the north.)

One surprise came when Barron said that Irish police had failed to make full use of information at their disposal, and had not pursued various lines of inquiry. He found no evidence, however, to support the allegation that the southern police investigation had been wound down as a result of political interference. But, in a finding which stung some Dublin politicians, he added: "It can be said that the government of the day showed little interest in the bombings. When information was given to them suggesting that the British authorities had intelligence naming the bombers, this was not followed up."

While this provided uncomfortable reading for the Dublin authorities, the judge's observations on a possible British role held little cheer for London. "There are grounds for suspecting that the bombers may have had assistance from members of the security forces," Barron said. "The involvement of individual members in such an activity does not of itself mean the bombings were either officially or unofficially state-sanctioned."

He added: "If one accepts that some people were involved, they may well have been acting on their own initiative. Ultimately, a finding that there was collusion between the perpetrators and the authorities in Northern Ireland is a matter of inference.

"On some occasions an inference is irresistible or can be drawn as a matter of probability. Here, it is the view of the inquiry that this inference is not sufficiently strong. It does not follow even as a matter of probability. Unless further information comes to hand, such involvement must remain a suspicion. It is not proven."

The report led to calls, from the Irish government of the day and others, for Britain to provide more cooperation to shed light on what Prime Minister Bertie Ahern described as "a very disturbing picture". But none was forthcoming, which means that suspicions about the 1974 affair have been neither confirmed nor dispelled by Judge Barron's efforts.

Margaret Urwin of the campaigning group Justice for the Forgotten said of him: "He wasn't afraid to criticise the Irish and British governments, and he wasn't afraid of the security forces north or south of the border. It gave families some sort of closure."

In one of the political tributes to the judge, Irish Labour representative Joe Costello said of him: "He showed great commitment in the search for the truth about these events, and in his dealings with the families he displayed exceptional understanding and sensitivity.

"It was as a result of the refusal of the British authorities to cooperate in full with the investigation, rather than any failings on the part of Henry Barron, that those responsible have still not been brought to justice."

He was an active member of Dublin's Jewish community, helping to create the Irish Jewish Museum and serving as its president.

He is survived by his children Jane, Harrie, Robert and Anne. He was predeceased by his wife Rosalind 13 years ago.

Henry Barron, Irish Supreme Court judge: born Dublin 25 May 1928; married Rosalind (two sons, two daughters); died Dublin 25 February 2010.