Senator Ward’s “inappropriate” attack on Simeon Burke

There was a more spirited debate than some critics might imagine in Gript towers yesterday over a question which isn’t one that often gets asked around here: Is Senator Barry Ward right?

Barry Ward, a barrister and Fine Gael senator, said he believed Simeon Burke’s conduct before the Court of Appeal showed he was not an appropriate candidate to become a barrister.

“Courts are not places where barristers get to pursue an agenda,” Ward said. “I’m a politician but if somebody from Sinn Féin came I would absolutely represent them. I mightn’t agree with them but you don’t advocate for people in court because you agree with them.

“It does seem to me that his behaviour precludes him from practising law. I don’t care about what your beliefs are.

“Barristers have minimum required standards and ethics relating to how they are supposed to behave.

“If you are incapable of conducting yourself in an appropriate way in a courtroom you are not a person who is an appropriate candidate for membership of the Bar.”

The Burke in question here is Simeon, Enoch’s younger brother, who is scheduled to finish his studies at the King’s Inns (which, as an aside, have never changed their name, even though His Majesty the King no longer has a claim on them) this year, and start “devilling” as a barrister in the Autumn.

On the face of it, there is no obvious reason why Simeon Burke should not become a barrister: He is clearly extraordinarily intelligent, as all the members of his family appear to be. Fellow students describe him as courteous and friendly. Further, it is obviously inappropriate for a Senator like Barry Ward to be speculating on the employability of a private citizen who has been convicted of no crime.

But it seems to me that there are two questions here: The first is whether there should be any impediment to Simeon Burke becoming a barrister, and whether Ward had any moral right to cast doubt on his employability.

The answer to those is unambiguously no – there should be no impediment; and no – Ward should have kept his mouth shut, whatever his private opinions might be. Ward – an accomplished lawyer himself – should know that coming from him a phrase like “not an appropriate candidate” sounds like an exhortation to other lawyers not to hire or work with the younger Burke. To my mind, and I am sure to many other minds, that comes very close to being a fundamental abuse of the office he holds. And for what? A few cheap nods of approval online? For my sins, I’d thought better of the Senator.

The second question though is a more pragmatic one about whether there is, functionally, an impediment to the younger Burke becoming a barrister. The answer here, like it or not, is “probably”.

We’ll start here with a basic tenet of conservatism: Life isn’t fair. Is it fair that, as the Independent reports, the younger Burke will have difficulty finding a barrister willing to take him on as an apprentice (or “devil” as it’s known in law)? Well, whether it is fair or not is an entirely academic question, because Barristers like everybody else are human and will obviously consider matters other than the raw qualifications of the candidates before them. Questions like “is it possible that I will one day be making an argument before a judge who, the day before, has been accused of promoting transgenderism by my apprentice?

That those questions might be asked are a function of the younger Burke’s own choices this past week, not a reflection of the legal profession more widely. He may also, of course, suffer from negative attitudes towards his family generally in the legal profession as a result of events in court. And that is unfair. But it’s also just how life works. Condemning people for forming a negative impression is a fruitless endeavour. They’ve already formed it at that point.

It is also, I think, fair to make the following observation: If the younger Burke is close in outlook to his siblings and family, and there is no reason to assume that he is not, then it is to be expected that on any occasion when his moral and religious values conflicted with the requirements of his role as a lawyer, he would choose the former over the latter. This, to be clear, is not a statement of condemnation – in fact from a certain point of view it is deeply admirable.

But it is not, I think, what clients and colleagues expect as the norm these days in the legal profession, or indeed in most jobs.

And so, I think, if you take Barry Ward’s comments as a simple statement of fact, then they are difficult to argue against.

Much like Gary Lineker and the BBC, though, having the right to say something does not automatically mean you should say it. This is especially true when commenting on the career of a 24 year old man with no criminal record, who has the same right as anyone else, regardless of their faith or religious beliefs, to pursue a career.

Ultimately, the only person who can decide whether Simeon Burke might turn out to be a great lawyer is Simeon Burke: It is to be hoped that there is someone in the legal profession who might give him that chance. Senators have no business commenting on people’s employability.

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