Obituary: Judge Niall McCarthy - People - News - The Independent

Obituary: Judge Niall McCarthy

Niall St John McCarthy, barrister and judge, born Cork 25 May 1925, called to the Irish Bar 1946, Inner Bar 1959, Chairman Irish Bar Council 1980-82, Supreme Court 1982-92, married 1952 Barbara Foley (died 1992; two sons, two daughters), died Seville Spain 1 October 1992.

THE SUDDEN death of Mr Justice Niall McCarthy (killed in a car crash with his wife Barbara near Seville) has deprived the Irish Supreme Court, long a bastion of independent judicial thinking, of one of its most incisive intellects.

His legal conclusions were invariably concise and delivered with an articulate certainty, sometimes passionate force. His special distinction was in presenting the law not as cold abstracted logic, but an instrument with real human consequences.

This was never more evident than last March in the so-called 'X' case, when from the bench he lambasted Ireland's politicians for nine years of inactivity in failing to give the courts any legislative guidance on interpreting in practice the 1983 amendment to the constitution giving the unborn foetus an equal right to life to the mother.

Their failure in this was 'not just unfortunate, it's inexcusable', he said with undisguised rage. He was on the majority side when the judges decided four to one that the 14-year-old alleged rape victim at the centre of the case was entitled to go to Britain for an abortion. The 'real and substantial risk to the life of the mother' had to predominate, they held.

His career as a barrister reads like a roll-call of Ireland's most celebrated cases of recent years. In the 1970 Arms Trial McCarthy defended the recently sacked finance minister Charles J. Haughey, who faced gunrunning charges. Haughey was acquitted, a legal victory rewarded 12 years later when the politician, now a resurgent premier, appointed him to the Supreme Court.

By then Niall McCarthy, whose workload ranged from commercial and personal injury cases to libel, was reputedly the Irish Bar's top earner. He was a prominent figure in a succession of high-profile tribunals. He represented Gulf Oil at the inquiry into the Whiddy terminal disaster, and the Butterly family in the tribunal on the 1981 Stardust disaster after 48 young Dubliners died in a St Valentine's Day night-club fire.

His defence of the rights of the individual was emphasised in such Supreme Court judgments as that where he argued that criminalisation of homosexuality infringed the Irish constitution. In 1990 he and his four colleagues agreeed unanimously that two IRA Maze escapers could not be extradited back to Northern Ireland because of a 'probable risk' that they would be assaulted by prison staff there.

Margaret Thatcher called the decision 'deeply offensive and unjustified, offering nothing but encouragement to terrorists'. In Ireland the decision confirmed the Supreme Court judges' reputation for complete independence from the political sphere, upholding a firm conviction that the constitution was the law and had to be implemented as it was.

With his forceful colleague Mr Justice Brian Walsh, he also helped build the view that Irish law should not be an antique remnant of British rule but a living entity within a modern Ireland.

He showed limited patience for the more anachronistic rites of the courts. He found the sight of male wigs on women barristers 'comic'. Wearing wigs represented a protection of lawyers from their clients 'with a sort of forensic condom' he maintained. He himself believed judges should not be remote, but accessible to society, and happily made himself available as a conference and after-dinner speaker.

(Photograph omitted)

PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

HR Manager - London - £40,000 + bonus

£32000 - £40000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: HR Manager (Generalist) -Old...

Talent Manager / HR Manager - central London - £50,000

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Talent / Learning & Development Mana...

HR Manager (standalone) - London

Up to £40,000: Ashdown Group: Standalone HR Manager role for an SME business b...

HR Analyst - Banking - Bristol - £350-£400

£350 - £400 per day: Orgtel: HR Analyst - Banking - Bristol - £350 - £400 per ...

Day In a Page

Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week