So wrote the retiring Mr Justice Gibson upon the occasion of his election of Honorary Bencher in 1921. He had just witnessed the partition of both the island and the legal profession. Although s.8 of the Government of Ireland Act 1920 provided for the continuation of the rights audience in both jurisdictions for those barristers that were called prior to 1920, a consequence of the Act was to compel the establishment of a Bar of Northern Ireland in 1921. The last meeting of an “all-island” Bar Council was on 21 December 1921 and although relations over the decades have been cordial, there have been no joint sessions. It had seemed that Judge Gibson’s dearest wish that the profession would somehow hold together through the vicissitudes of the time were not fully realised. This unhappy state of affairs was remedied on 21 June 2013 when the First Joint Meeting of the General Council of the Bar of Ireland and the Bar of Northern Ireland was held in the Benchers’ Rooms of the King’s Inns. The meeting, which was a working one, was co-chaired by David Nolan SC and Mark Mulholland QC. Full membership of both Bar Councils were in attendance.
The most pressing matters facing the Bars in both jurisdictions were outlined and discussed. Topics included the Legal Services Regulation Bill; the Access to Justice Review in Northern Ireland; recent cuts in legal aid budgets in both jurisdictions with the consequent difficulties; external relations and the promotion of the Bar and the issue of the education of barristers. A huge insight was gleaned by the members in the approach taken in dealing with these challenging issues, with a number of practical suggestions emerging. The meeting agreed to set out two working groups: one to look at the feasibility of setting up a cross-border pupil exchange and the other to examine the feasibility of encouraging cross-border bar membership.
The meeting was followed by two hugely entertaining and pertinent lectures. Sir Anthony Hart delivered an address entitled “Some Aspects of the Irish Bar before 1921, and the origins of the Bar Councils in Ireland and Northern Ireland”, which dealt with the origins of our profession. It also provided a fascinating account of the very early days of the Bar of Northern Ireland; transmitting to the listener a real flavour of the drama of the time. Interestingly, it appeared from Sir Anthony’s lecture that the principles of collegiality, which we still hold so dear, were clearly evident at the time. In early 1922 the Bencher’s lent 450 books to the Bar Library in Belfast, where they were desperately needed. On 21 December 1921 the Library Committee in Dublin agreed to provide more, but their gesture of goodwill was sadly thwarted by the seizure of the Four Courts in 1922. His Hon. Mr Justice Gerard Hogan was not to be outdone in holding his audience rapt. He provided the audience with a lecture entitled “Childers’ Ghost and the Trials of Sir Charles O’Connor M.R.”.
This account culminated in a description of the application for Habeas Corpus of Erskine Childers – a case that had been heard in the very room where we sat. Both papers are now available on Barrister’s Desktop. A large delegation was received from Belfast for this historic event. The evening concluded with dinner in the King’s Inns, where new ties of collegiality were formed. Without doubt, the evening was a great success. It is hoped that the second Joint Meeting will be held in Belfast in June 2014 and annually thereafter.
Mark Mulholland QC, Chairman of the Bar of Northern Ireland and David Nolan SC Chairman of the Bar of Ireland