11:43, August 04 111 0 theguardian.com

2020-08-04 11:43:03
Lord Hutton obituary

Brian Hutton, Lord Hutton, who has died aged 89, was a former lord chief justice of Northern Ireland, where he was involved in many high-profile cases during the Troubles, including the killings of unarmed civil rights marchers in Derry on Bloody Sunday in 1972. He was thrust into the limelight in Britain when he was chosen by a panicking Blair government to chair an inquiry into the death of the Iraqi weapons expert turned unwitting whistleblower, David Kelly.

The scientist was found dead on 18 July 2003 (Hutton concluded Kelly had taken his own life, though an inquest was never completed) after being named as the source of a BBC radio broadcast saying the government had “sexed up” its dossier on Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction.

Hutton absolved Tony Blair over the dossier and the Ministry of Defence over its handling of Kelly, reserving his criticism for the media in general and the BBC in particular. “The BBC should publicly acknowledge that this very grave allegation should not have been broadcast,” he demanded in a brutal, and to many unjustified, attack that led to the resignation of the corporation’s popular director general, Greg Dyke, and its chair, Gavyn Davies, and a deep crisis in the morale and confidence of the public service broadcaster.

Hutton’s 740-page report was a masterpiece of circumlocution. Hutton concluded: “The term ‘sexed up’ is a slang expression, the meaning of which lacks clarity in the context of the discussion of the dossier. It is capable of two different meanings. It could mean that the dossier was embellished with items of intelligence known or believed to be false or unreliable to make the case against Saddam Hussein stronger, or it could mean that while the intelligence contained in the dossier was believed to be reliable, the dossier was drafted in such a way as to make the case against Saddam Hussein as strong as the intelligence contained in it permitted.”

Hutton continued: “If the term is used in this latter sense … it could be said that the government ‘sexed-up’ the dossier. However, in the context of the broadcasts in which the ‘sexing-up’ allegation was reported and having regard to the other allegations reported in those broadcasts, I consider that the allegation was unfounded as it would have been understood by those who heard the broadcasts to mean that the dossier had been embellished with intelligence known or believed to be false or unreliable, which was not the case.”

That conclusion may have come as a surprise to many who heard the evidence and his report was widely criticised as a “whitewash”. Hutton did not seem surprised by the criticism but after a career in Northern Ireland courts – and fortified by a strong Presbyterian faith – he could easily cope with it.

Hutton was born in Belfast. His father, James, was a senior railway executive; his mother, Mabel, was a daughter of the manse. Both were members of the congregation at the Presbyterian Fort William Park church. Brian was educated at Brackenber House preparatory school, where he became head boy, and won a scholarship to Shrewsbury school, Shropshire.

Another scholarship took him to Balliol College, Oxford, where he was awarded a first-class degree in jurisprudence. He continued his law studies at Queen’s University Belfast and was called to the Northern Ireland bar in 1954. He became a QC in 1970 and nine years later was appointed a judge. He became lord chief justice in Northern Ireland in 1988 and a law lord in 1997, retiring in 2003.

Hutton’s appointment in 1988 as Northern Ireland’s top judge provoked controversy. The role was expected to be given to more senior appeal court judges, including Lord Justice Turlough O’Donnell, a Catholic. But Hutton had an ally in the UK’s recently appointed lord chancellor, Lord (James) Mackay of Clashfern (raised as a member of the Free Presbyterian Church in Scotland), with whom Hutton had appeared for the government at the European court of human rights (ECHR) in a case in which Britain was found guilty of ill-treating republican internees.

Hutton first came to prominence in the Northern Irish courts as junior counsel to the attorney general in 1969 prosecuting Bernadette Devlin, the Independent MP for Mid-Ulster, who was convicted of incitement to riot in Derry’s Bogside neighbourhood. He later represented British paratroopers at the 1972 Widgery inquest into 13 unarmed marchers being killed on Bloody Sunday, attacking the coroner who described the shootings as “sheer unadulterated murder”.

He presided over a number of non-jury Diplock trials (used during the Troubles for political and terrorism cases). They included that of Dominic “Mad Dog” McGlinchey, who left the IRA to head the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA), and whom he sentenced to life imprisonment in 1984 for murder (the sentence was quashed on appeal the following year for lack of reliable evidence). After the conviction that year of 10 members of the IRA found guilty of terrorist activities, Hutton became the first member of the Northern Irish judiciary to endorse the recruitment of “supergrasses”. Without the evidence of the informer Robert Quigley, he said, the IRA men could have committed more crimes.

Hutton later acquitted an RUC reservist, Nigel Hegarty, of unlawfully killing Sean Downes with a plastic bullet at a rally in west Belfast and two Royal Marines charged with murdering republican Fergal Caraher in a shooting incident at Cullyhanna in 1990.

However, Hutton’s judgments were not always applauded by loyalists, the RUC, or the army. Far from it. He ordered three unidentified policemen to appear at the inquest in 1988 into the shooting of three unarmed IRA members, a decision that led to John Stalker’s (later blocked) “shoot to kill” inquiry. In 1994, Hutton dismissed Private Lee Clegg’s appeal against the soldier’s conviction of murdering Karen Reilly and wounding Martin Peake, two teenagers joyriding in west Belfast (though Clegg’s conviction was later quashed and he was cleared of murder at a second trial.)

He angered loyalists in 1992 at the trial of Patrick Nash, a former republican prisoner charged with conspiracy to murder. Nash, who claimed that he had been beaten by RUC officers to obtain a false confession, was acquitted. In his judgment, Hutton said Nash might have been an “accomplished liar” but declared: “Although the threat posed by the terrorist campaign waged by the IRA and other terrorist groups in Northern Ireland is very grave, those campaigns do not for a moment justify or excuse any police officer assaulting a person in lawful custody who is suspected of involvement in terrorist violence.”

Hutton’s friends and colleagues described him as a man of integrity who was a prime IRA target. His name, address, and car registration appeared on an IRA list discovered by the RUC. As a result he moved his family to live in Edinburgh. Five of his fellow judges were killed, including his friend Lord Justice Maurice Gibson, who was blown up by a terrorist bomb in 1987.

Though Hutton appeared to be an austere individual – he was said to read Halsbury’s Laws of England for pleasure – he is described as being a warm family man. His marriage in 1975 to Mary Murland, an engineer’s daughter, is said to have been particularly happy, and her death from cancer in 2000 was a devastating blow. The following year he married Lindy Nickols, who survives him, as do two daughters, Louise and Helen, from his first marriage, and three stepchildren.

James Brian Edward Hutton, Lord Hutton, judge, born 29 June 1931; died 14 July 2020

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