Nicholas (nwhyte) wrote,

The Life of Sir Denis Henry, Catholic Unionist, by A.D. McDonnell

Second paragraph of third chapter:
Henry, of course, was not the only Irish Law Officer of note during this period, and he was assisted by two Solicitor-Generals [sic]; D.M. Wilson, followed by T.W. Brown. Born in Ballymena and son of a former moderator of the Presbyterian General Assembly, Wilson had been educated at the Royal Belfast Academical Institution and Trinity College Dublin. Called to the Bar in 1885, Wilson had practised in the North-West Circuit, winning the West Down seat in the 1918 general election. Thomas Watters Brown was born in Newtownards in 1879, and had been educated at Campbell College Belfast and Queen's University. Called to the Bar in 1907, he became a KC in February 1918, successfully contesting the North Down constituency in the , general election of that year. Brown, in fact, became Attorney-General on 5 August 1921 when Henry was appointed Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland. The vacancy in the Solicitor-Generalship resulting from Brown's promotion was never filled, and he thus had the distinction of being the last holder of the two Irish Law Offices of Solicitor- and Attorney-General. Henry was also supported by the appointment of William Evelyn Wylie as Law Adviser, which arose from the number of legal problems that the Irish Law Officers had to deal with, and the fact that one of the two Law Officers was frequently out of the country. The position of Law Adviser had been abolished in 1883, but was revived in 1919, with Wylie's brief to act as a general assistant to the Attorney General. Wylie, born in 1881, had been called to the Bar in 1905, and became a KC in 1914. Such were the pressures on all of the Irish Law officers, it was found necessary in 1920 to employ M.D. Begley in a temporary capacity to assist the Law Adviser as well. A barrister of some repute, Wylie had designs on the vacant Solicitor-Generalship following Henry's promotion in 1919. After his close friend Sir John Maxwell wrote to Lord French on his behalf, Wylie met the Chief Secretary, Ian Macpherson, who told him that the government's wish to have the Solicitor-General in the Commons made him ineligible. However, Wylie was quite taken with the prospect of the post of Law Adviser, and recalled: 'Macpherson was empowered to offer me the appointment at a salary of £2,000 a year with the right to practise as well ... I jumped at it.' Within a year, not only would Wylie clash with Henry and other members of the cabinet over the direction of government policy, but he would also reveal his formidable powers and eventually exercise a considerable influence on the government response to the Anglo-Irish War.
A nice short monograph about a rather obscure figure of the Irish revolutionary period. Denis Stanislaus Henry was something of a paradox - a Catholic from Draperstown who got into Unionist politics, fighting four Westminster elections and winning two of them (he lost the other two by less than ten votes); he was the last Catholic to be elected to Westminster as a Unionist from Ulster, just over a century ago in 1918. He served as Solicitor-General and then Attorney-General for Ireland in the critical 1918-21 period, where he found himself defending government violence in the House of Commons without necessarily being fully in the loop himself. Then when the government of Northern Ireland was set up in 1921, he became the first Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland. An exciting period of setting up and implementing new institutions ended with his sudden death at the age of 61 in 1925. For almost 80 years after that, only Protestants were appointed as Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland (though both the incumbent and his predecessor are Catholics).

Henry is an interesting case of someone who was convinced by the economic and legal case for Unionism, and not so much by cultural considerations. It was a consistent position through his career (as far as we can tell); of course it did him no harm - the positions of Solicitor-General and Attorney-General would not have been open to political Nationalists even as late as 1918 and 1919 - but he did not push it as hard as he might have done, particularly when he lost North Tyrone so narrowly in 1906 and 1907. What I missed was an account of the internal workings of the Unionist Party; it must have been a bit of a stretch to ask the Orangemen of North Tyrone and then South Londonderry to endorse a visibly non-Protestant candidate, and presumably he had done some local footwork and/or got the backing of a significant political patron. But we don't see that here.

The story of the installation of the Northern Ireland judicial system was very interesting, though. When Henry took up the position of Lord Chief Justice in August 1921, it was not at all obvious that the new government of Northern Ireland would even survive until the end of the year. I know the Royal Courts of Justice building as a fixed point in the middle of Belfast - but of course it was only opened in 1933, and we see Henry and a very small staff fighting for space in Crumlin Road to create a new structure, Henry himself signing off on demands for office furnishings. My own dealings with the Northern Irish justice system amount to a small claims case against an ex-landlord, but I have the greatest respect for those who kept Henry's system going in hard times. Still, I feel that there is more to be told here too.

This was the shortest book acquired in 2011 which was still on my unread shelves. You can get it here. Next up after that is The Making and Remaking of the Good Friday Agreement by my old friend (Lord) Paul Bew.
Tags: bookblog 2019, world: northern ireland

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