A "satisfactory" relationship with Government

"Independence doesn't mean isolation" / Film

In May 2010 John Larkin became Northern Ireland’s first Attorney General for 37 years as part of the devolution of justice powers to the Stormont Assembly.

It brought a new dynamic to the political establishment: a person in the room at Executive meetings tasked specifically with providing legal advice as policy and legislation are drawn up.

Born and raised in Catholic west Belfast, he has previously acted as a legal representative for Gerry Adams, Ian Paisley and Peter Robinson, but is the first Attorney General not to be a politician sitting either at Stormont, or in the House of Commons.

Northern Ireland’s last Attorney General was Ulster Unionist Sir Basil Kelly QC.

Questioned about his experience of being the first Attorney General to walk the hallowed corridors of power at Stormont for nearly four decades, Mr Larkin said:

“I always smile a bit at the idea of the corridors of power.

“I suspect with the enormous amount of our rule coming from Brussels and the regulation that we get from the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg and also the guidance from Strasbourg, that to an increasing extent, power resides elsewhere.

“But I have certainly found it an absolutely fascinating year so far.

“What’s been particularly interesting to me, because I belong to that generation which has lived through our troubles, and therefore seeing some of the individuals, who I do see regularly working in a room together, I do have to resist the temptation some times to rub my eyes in disbelief.

“What is remarkable is how collegial and how effective, very often, is the working together that, at least I see.”

The 47 year-old insists that the independence of the Attorney General’s office has not been compromised by the need to work closely with politicians and civil servants on a daily basis.

“Probably it might be interesting to ask some of the ministers about that because that’s probably more (for) them to say at least.

“From my perspective there’s no difficulty whatsoever.

“One takes advice, one listens to comments, but the content of the advice is dictated simply be a legal judgement as to what the law requires.”

However he insists that the need to ensure independence does not mean that he cannot engage with his colleagues at the Executive table.

“I think independence doesn’t mean isolation.

“Independence is an act of professional conscientous judgement very often and it’s in no way opposed to collegial working together, where that’s appropriate, to the free exchange of views.

“But I have the reassurance that my independence is statutorily enshrined and therefore that’s a very powerful safeguard.

“I’ve never had to; so far, stand on that statutory underpinning, because so far things are working exceptionally well.”

Mr Larkin would not discuss the inner workings of what goes on around the Executive table.

“Obviously what I can’t get in to is the nature and the advice of the particular exchanges with individual ministers.

“What I simply have to say in relation to that is that to my mind it has been a very satisfactory set of relationships.”

Asked whether anything more should be read into his use of the word `satisfactory’ to describe his relationship with ministers, Mr Larkin says:

“No, that’s just a pompous lawyer’s word, I wouldn’t worry about that.”

He also said that his role is not as the ultimate enforcer to hold politicians to account.

“I’m a big believer that the people whose primary duty it is to hold politicians to account are citizens at elections held at regular intervals and also other politicians.

“We have the committee structures as you know in the assembly, which is designed to be a powerful means to hold ministers and departments to account.

“(As for) my function, I do have quasi-adjudicatory functions from time to time in the range of my responsibilities.

“But it is not my primary responsibility to hold politicians to account, except no doubt on those very rare and extreme cases, which happily haven’t yet arisen.”