Northern Ireland’s Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) has insisted he has not been forced out of office over controversial legacy cases.
Barra McGrory QC said he regrets that the legacy issue “has become the story” of his tenure and admitted that dealing with cases related to the Troubles was “an unanticipated aspect of the job”.
Mr McGrory said he had always intended to leave the post after five or six years to go back to practising as a barrister.
Officially announcing his intention to step down in September on Wednesday, Mr McGrory insisted his decision was “absolutely not because of legacy”.
Mr McGrory has faced a storm of criticism over the prosecution of former soldiers for killings during the Northern Ireland Troubles.
Earlier this month unionists called for his resignation after prosecutors re-instated an attempted murder charge against ex-soldier Dennis Hutchings, 76, over the 1974 shooting of civilian John Pat Cunningham.
Previously, a judge had said there was insufficient evidence to proceed with the charge against Hutchings.
Mr McGrory said the legacy issue will be a difficult one for any prosecutor to deal with.
“If all of the legacy controversy had not happened we would still be having this conversation,” said Mr McGrory.
He added: “My heart lies in the representative role.
“I left that with the intention of returning to it. (I have) absolutely not been pushed out because of legacy.
“Legacy is going to be difficult for any prosecutor because the conflict will be relived in some senses. All decisions will be viewed through the prism of the different communities’ views.”
Mr McGrory said he “regrets that legacy has become the story of my tenure here”.
He added: “It was an unanticipated aspect of the job.
“I wish the political architects of the peace process had dealt with legacy.”
Mr McGrory became the first Catholic to hold the post of DPP when he was appointed in November 2011. He had previously worked on behalf of Gerry Adams, among other high-profile clients across both communities.
He said it has been “an honour” to lead the Public Prosecution Service (PPS).
He added that if he had his time over again he “would not have approached the job any differently”.
Sources close to the director said that hopefully the next prosecutor will not receive “some of the personal abuse” that Mr McGrory had.
David Ford, former Alliance Party leader and ex-justice minister, offered “good wishes” to Mr McGrory after the news of his departure was formally announced on Wednesday.
The South Antrim MLA also praised his conduct in the face of criticism from unionists.
He said Mr McGrory had shown “skill and integrity” in the way he managed the service during “a difficult time due to budget cuts”.
In 2010/11 for example, around the time he joined, the PPS had a budget of just over £37m. Today, it is about £33m.
“Barra brought his skills as a solicitor and barrister in private practice to his work as DPP, and despite allegations about some of his previous clients, he acted fairly and properly in that role,” said Mr Ford.
“Recent attacks on the PPS by a number of Tory and unionist representatives show how important it is politicians are kept away from individual justice issues such as prosecutions.
“The PPS must follow the evidence and take all decisions impartially. The service has resisted all political pressure and that is a tribute to Barra McGrory’s leadership.”
It will be up to the Attorney General to appoint a replacement for Mr McGrory, whose salary (according to the 2015/16 accounts) is between £175,000 to £180,000.
The Attorney General’s office said simply that the “competition to appoint a successor to Barra McGrory QC will begin in the near future”.
However, Mr McGrory has pledged to stay in post until a successor can be found, even if this is after September.
Mr McGrory’s second-in-command at present is Stephen Herron, the acting deputy director.
When reports that Mr McGrory was due to announce he was stepping down became public on Tuesday night, TUV leader Jim Allister had said that there is now a need to “create confidence” when considering who will succeed Mr McGrory.