The Secretary of State struggled to find a serving or retired UK judge willing to take on his limited inquiry into Kincora, one of the released files reveals.
The file shows how Mr Prior struggled to find a sufficiently senior legal figure to chair the inquiry, having initially publicly promised a High Court judge.
A note from officials said that “there is no prospect of the Lord Chancellor agreeing to make a serving judge from England and Wales available for anything short of a [wide-ranging] 1921 Act inquiry.”
The Lord Chancellor’s office then recommended five retired judges. But the only one of those who had been a High Court judge, Sir Hilary Talbot, turned down the offer, leaving four retired circuit judges from which to choose.
In a note to Mr Prior, official AJK Brennan said that with the exception of Donald Summer (a former Tory MP), “I should not think that the chances of any of them wanting the chore of commuting frequently to Northern Ireland are very high”.
Cryptically, he added: It is apparent from Judge Brown’s consultations with his ‘friend’ that we must rule out any prospect of getting a member of the Northern Ireland judiciary, serving or retired.”
That referred to a meeting between two NIO officials - one of whom was Sir Ewart Bell, head of the Civil Service - and Judge Brown, the recently retired Recorder of Belfast, at his home in Stoneyford in December 1983.
He was asked if he would conduct the inquiry but said that he would not, adding that if it had been a 1921 Act inquiry “he would have felt it his duty with his judicial background to accept the assignment even though he did not want it”.
The note added: “In conclusion, Judge Brown said that he would wish to consult a ‘friend’ before making up his mind...He assured us that apart from his wife and his ‘friend’ he would treat our approach in strict confidence”.
Judge Brown then contacted Norman Dugdale, permanent secretary at the Department of Health and Social Services, to say that “having discussed the matter in the strictest confidence with his friend...and subsequently with his wife, he had concluded very firmly, albeit with regret, that he must decline the invitation”.
Writing to prospective candidates for the chairmanship, Mr Prior said that he had been “under a good deal of pressure in Northern Ireland to ask Parliament to establish a Tribunal under the Tribunal of Inquiry (Evidence) Act 1921: I am sure that such a course would be inappropriate, but I am nevertheless satisfied that there must be an inquiry under a chairman of wide judicial experience”.
Judge William Hughes, who eventually accepted the appointment, ruled in 1986 that there had been no extensive ring of abusers centred on Kincora.
Six pages have been removed from the file made public and will not be opened to the public until 2067.
A 1984 file ‘Transcript of proceedings of committee of inquiry into children’s homes and hostels - EH & SS Board evidence’ has been entirely withheld and will not be available to the public for another 55 years.