Ulster's legal professionals face dangers of prosecuting terrorists

The attempted assassination of Northern Ireland's chief law officer last week exemplifies the dangers faced by members of the legal profession in Ulster.

Lawyers prosecute and defend members of both the Provisional wing of the illegal Irish Republican Army (IRA) and Protestant Loyalists. Judges sentence terrorist criminals of both communities.

Lawyers and judges face the threat of violence and retaliation. In the past 12 years in Northern Ireland, three lawyers have been murdered and another seriously injured.

Lord Lowry, the lord chief justice, narrowly escaped death March 2 when he was visiting Queen's University, Belfast, to give a talk. As he entered the university, gunmen of the IRA opened fire from a nearby house, missing Lord Lowry but wounding a member of the academic community. The lord chief justice, who had a plainclothes bodyguard, was rushed to safety.

The IRA later claimed responsibility and significantly said that Lord Lowry was ''an inevitable target.'' Lord Lowry, who was appointed lord chief justice in 1971, has presided over many major cases involving terrorism. He has set the tone for the judiciary, which has handed down numerous stiff sentences, including life imprisonment.

The attack on Lord Lowry, a highly respected figure who is regarded as one of the foremost legal experts in Britain, is by implication an attack on the entire profession, whose members come from both the Protestant and Roman Catholic communities in Northern Ireland with a slight Catholic majority.

In the early 1970s a leading judge, a senior counsel, and a popular Belfast magistrate were murdered by terrorists, and another Belfast magistrate was badly wounded. Those events led to strict security measures for other key members of the legal profession.

All leading politicians in the province were given the option of keeping a bodyguard and a weapon. However, some prefer to go about unprotected and they argue that a police bodyguard serves to draw terrorists' fire.

Such protection at best can only be limited. This was demonstrated during the murder in November of the Unionist member of Parliament, Rev. Robert Bradford. His police bodyguard, in plain clothes, was covered by a terrorist's gun while an accomplice shot Mr. Bradford.

One of the special difficulties facing the profession is the operation of the legal process itself. In the past jurors have been intimidated and one was murdered.

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