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Michael Nicholson obituary: Catholic High Court judge involved in many Troubles-related cases

Scrupulous, modest and fair judge, who brought otherworldliness to a new dimension

Born February 4th, 1933

Died October 30th, 2023

As a Catholic, Michael Nicholson, who has died aged 90, knew the danger he was taking on when he was appointed a High Court judge in Belfast in 1986.

As a Queen’s Counsel (QC), he had represented the likes of hunger striker Francis Hughes and many other republicans but with the IRA’s Troubles record of murdering both Catholic and Protestant judges, he realised neither his religion nor his legal work would grant him immunity from attack.

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But Nicholson felt that in accepting the appointment he was “helping to right a wrong” that his father, Cyril, also an eminent lawyer, had suffered in being denied a judgeship a generation earlier.

Nicholson’s son Tom said it was well documented that Cyril was “discriminated against for his Catholicism”. At the time the unionist legal authorities decided that as Northern Ireland already had one senior Catholic judge a second coreligionist would constitute an unacceptable surplus of Catholics on the bench.

Catholicism was important to Nicholson, although he could never have been described as culturally nationalist. Politically he was an Alliance or, as a friend of John Hume, a “mild SDLP” supporter.

The Nicholsons arrived in Ulster during the Plantation in the 1600s, setting up as weavers in Derry. The family believes marriage to a local woman fairly quickly led to Catholic conversion.

Michael was the second of three children to Cyril Nicholson and his wife, Nellie, an amateur opera singer. His brother Thomas, who died in 2020, was a parish priest in Canada and his sister Felicity, who died in 2017, was director of antiquities at Sotheby’s.

He was educated at Brackenber House and then went to the Catholic public school Downside near Bath in England, where he was head boy and captain of the cricket team. He was passionate about cricket, believing it could be a unifying force in a divided society. He was president of the Ardmore cricket team for 60 years and was Irish Cricket Union president in 1978.

One lawyer remembered how he movingly and compassionately dealt with a single mother who had left her child alone in her flat so she could earn some money as a cleaner, the child dying in an accidental fire

He studied classics and law at Trinity College, Cambridge, before returning to Belfast to start his legal career. He took silk in 1971 and as a QC was involved in many Troubles-related cases, the highest profile of which was representing several of 22 republicans who were convicted on the word of IRA informant or “supergrass” Christopher Black.

They were sentenced in 1983 to a total of 4,000 years’ imprisonment but, in 1986, 18 had their convictions overturned in the court of appeal. Nicholson played a big role in that case, the result of which undermined the use of such informants. About two years in advance of the appeal he was offered a post as a high court judge but after consulting with colleagues decided to decline the position until the supergrass cases were concluded.

He was also due to take part in the tribunal into the 1972 Bloody Sunday killings that was conducted by the then British Lord Chief Justice Lord Widgery. His report generally was accepted as a whitewash to exonerate the soldiers. Tom said his father decided to have nothing to do with the inquiry when he heard Widgery say something to the effect that the tribunal was just “for appearances”.

On being appointed a high court judge in 1986 the police informed him they could not provide protection at his Ardmore home, with the result that the estate was sold.

The family moved to a home near Comber in Co Down where they had round-the-clock police protection, bulletproof windows, security cameras and restrictions on Nicholson’s movements.

Friends said the “defining event” in his life was the abduction and murder in 1972 by the Official IRA of his great friend, Marcus McCausland, a captain in the Ulster Defence Regiment, who also was a Catholic. It was a matter of some consolation and joy for Nicholson that many years later that Simon McCausland, Marcus’s nephew, married his daughter Emma.

Nicholson was elevated to the court of appeal in 1995 and retired from the bench in 2006.

Described as a scrupulous, modest and fair judge colleagues and friends also said that he brought otherworldliness to a new dimension. He lived life in the manner of the “absent-minded academic”, a man who “couldn’t make himself a cup of coffee”, but yet was intellectually brilliant.

On one famous occasion he appeared on the bench in the court of appeal with a wire hanger still attached to his gown. Another time, when he was a QC, his colleague Desmond Boal tied his laces together just as he was about to address the court. That he didn’t even notice the prank further illustrating his distracted nature.

Colleagues said he was funny, mischievous and very convivial, happy to share good whiskey, wine and port, and that he was kind. One lawyer remembered how he movingly and compassionately dealt with a single mother who had left her child alone in her flat so she could earn some money as a cleaner, the child dying in an accidental fire.

There was some “incredulity”, and a degree of jealousy, when in 1973 he married Augusta Doyle, described as a Cork beauty. He died just months after their 50th wedding anniversary and is buried in Ardmore.

Sir Michael Nicholson is survived by his wife, Augusta; son, Tom, a barrister in London; daughters, Emma, a former charity worker, and Tessa, a screenwriter; and seven grandchildren.

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