Declan Morgan interview: ‘It wasn’t that Catholics lacked faith in the justice system, it was more a lack of engagement’

Duke Street, Londonderry, 1968, sometimes seen as the start of the Troubles. Sir Declan, then aged 16, wanted to be there
Duke Street, Londonderry, 1968, sometimes seen as the start of the Troubles. Sir Declan, then aged 16, wanted to be there

To accompany his main interview by Ben Lowry, Sir Declan Morgan, Northern Ireland’s lord chief justice, talks about his upbringing, education, and early career (a link to the main interview is at the bottom of this article):

The activist Eamonn McCann has commented on how the Troubles erupted first in Londonderry in 1968, and first began to wind down there too, in the early 1990s.

Peterhouse College, Cambridge, where Declan Morgan became a student in 1971

Peterhouse College, Cambridge, where Declan Morgan became a student in 1971

Declan Morgan, like McCann an old boy of St Columb’s College grammar school in the city, was born in 1952 and aged 16 when the disorder began. He witnessed up close the changes it wrought.

“The area in which I lived as a child was almost exclusively Protestant,” he recalls, “in the west bank area, close to Magee.”

He does not recall a sudden Protestant exodus, so much as a gradual change as the security situation deteriorated: “Families that I used to play with as children and knock about with as a teenager, somehow or other weren’t there 10 years later.”

Sir Declan wanted to attend the October 1968 civil rights march in Duke Street, where RUC men were filmed using batons on protestors.

“My parents wouldn’t allow me to go. My uncle, who was a priest, was on the march. He said he’d never had such a frightening experience in his life ... I was eventually allowed out at 2.30pm on the basis that I would go to the local football match.

“Needless to say with some friends I went to see what was happening on the march. It was all over but there were some efforts by Queen’s students to re-group in the city centre.”

It was, at home and abroad, a tumultuous year — “the riots in France, the difficulties in Northern Ireland, the difficulties in London re the American embassy, what was happening in the United States over Vietnam. For an impressionable 16-year-old these were major events”.

He did not then realise the significance of the Duke Street clash. “I do remember Jim Callahan [prime minister] coming to visit the Bogside in Derry and being welcomed by thousands of people. I think people placed their trust in politicians to try and work all of this out. At that stage of course there were no organised terrorist activities.”

As the political situation worsened in 1969 and 70, Sir Declan was in his final years at school.

“The troops arrived in the city in 1969 and I think there was a sense of anticipation that something was still going to happen.

“There was a very disorganised state of affairs within the city because you had this no-go area that was really controlled as a commune, almost like a Brecht play, and there was an awful lot of talking around assertion of one’s rights etc.

“One of those was an attempt by myself and a number of other students at the school to set up a students’ representative council within St Columb’s, an approach that was not favoured by the then president [principal].”

Sir Declan went to Cambridge University in 1971 to study maths and law.

“By that stage the atmosphere on the streets had changed.”

No St Columb’s pupils had gone to Cambridge, but that year three of them did.

“The president of the college decided that we were going to go. It never crossed our minds as something we should be thinking about but he was anxious to promote the school.

“I’ve always been very grateful to him.”

He adds: “To someone from my background, a rather narrow background centred around north west of Northern Ireland into Donegal, I had no real hinterland beyond that. Cambridge was just mind-blowing for me.”

Asked if it was intimidating suddenly to be amid public school types, he says: “There were a number of public school students there but I didn’t have any particular difficulty in going and the three of us went to the same college which worked out very well because each of us formed different circles of friends.”

At Christmas, Easter and summer holidays, he was going home to an increasingly volatile Northern Ireland.

In January 1972, he was working in the college library on a Sunday evening when “friends came up to tell me that something really bad had happened and the news was about to come on”.

It was Bloody Sunday, back in Londonderry.

The killings by soldiers inflicted a lasting wound on his home city. He knew people who were at the march, but none of those who died.

“It wasn’t such an unusual thing to do to go to a march. You felt nothing too serious would happen. If anything was going to happen is was going to be after the march or at the very edges of the march.”

Sir Declan thought of staying in England after Cambridge, and worked as a trainee accountant in London. “I didn’t enjoy it.”

His move into law was unplanned. “I did the bar exams to do something. It was only when I began to practice that I realised I enjoyed it.”

He did return to Northern Ireland, where he rose to become senior crown counsel, which involves political, security and other work for the government.

Asked if Catholics had felt a lack of confidence in the criminal justice system during his pre-Troubles childhood, he says it was more a “complete lack of engagement with the justice system”.

“I walked to and from school, I would have gone up Bishop Street where the courthouse is. I never knew that was the courthouse, despite the fact that I walked past it twice a day for the 200+ days that I was at school.

“So it had no relevance to me.”

Next month, he will have been lord chief justice for a decade. “I’ve found it challenging but I couldn’t say I haven’t enjoyed it,” he says.

“I was appointed just before the devolution of justice in 2010 and I have been able to work successively with the other justice leaders, with politicians, the PSNI, the DPP, and others, with the Probation Service.

Link to the main interview with Sir Declan here