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Kelly's promotion ruffled legal eagles' feathers

Kevin Moore traces Justice Cyril Kelly's career and finds him highly respected even though his appointment initially caused a stirTHE Hon Mr Justice Cyril Kelly raises the same sort of hackles among some Fine Gael people as Mary McAleese did during the Presidential election: he is a Northerner, who should be ``up there'', not ``down here''.

And his present perceived difficulties arising from the Philip Sheedy case are compounded by the fact that it was Albert Reynold's Fianna Fáil/Labour Coalition, which appointed him a judge of the Circuit Court in 1992.

This caused additional resentment among the inhabitants of the Law Library, whose ancient rituals had been set aside in the promotion of a barrister to the bench without having been a Senior Counsel first.

These feelings grew, following the elevation of Mr Justice Kelly to the High Court on November 25 last, along with Nicholas Kearns, SC, to make up for the absence of Mr Justice Moriarty and Mr Justice Flood who were presiding at the tribunals.

This led to the most serious allegation of all. It was pointed out during exchanges in the Dáil that Mr Justice Kelly was promoted to the High Court 12 days after the hearing of the case against architect Philip Sheedy.

So what is the truth? Legal people and politicians of all hues who know Mr Justice Kelly describe him as being ``competent and honourable''. They believe that the attacks are off target.

Dick Spring, a barrister, who was Tanáiste in the Reynolds' Government, backed his appointment to the Circuit Court in 1992 because he was not a member of Fianna Fáil, or regarded as a Fianna Fáil camp follower. This explains the restrained approach of the Labour Party during the past week.

Mr Justice Kelly is aged 47 and is from Keady, in the heart of staunchly-republican South Armagh, although he is regarded as a moderate nationalist. He attended Clongowes Wood College, Naas and then UCD.

He worked on the Northern Circuit of Donegal, Leitrim, Cavan and Monaghan for 10 years, before continuing his practice in Dublin.

The people with whom he worked in the border counties described him as being ``pretty brilliant'', as ``having a modest and successful practice'' and of ``enjoying a great relationship with clients and the legal profession''.

A Co Donegal solicitor, who has been in practice for 42 years, was wholehearted in his praise of Mr Justice Kelly.

However he also believed that Jim Higgins, the Fine Gael spokesman on justice, was acting ``quite properly'' in pursuing his efforts to establish that ``nothing irregular'' occurred in the listing of the Philip Sheedy case and in trying to identify the person responsible.

He said of Mr Justice Kelly: ``I have the utmost respect for the man. He is firm, he is fair and he would not do anything underhand. And, in all the years I have known him, I did not know him to be politically active at all.''

The North Donegal solicitor, who is a member of Fine Gael, believed that Mr Justice Kelly's promotions first to the Circuit Court and then to the High Court were ``well deserved'', although he had not been a Senior Counsel and there were an ``awful lot of jealousies in the Law Library''. He did not see any significance in the fact that Mr Justice Kelly became a High Court judge 12 days after the Sheedy case.

``The promotion would have been in the pipeline long before the decision; it had to be,'' he stressed. ``He would have been screened.''

As a Circuit Court judge, Cyril Kelly dealt primarily with criminal cases, where, according to another barrister, he ``did a first-class job and everybody acknowledges that''.

Among the cases he heard was that of paedophile priest, Fr Brendan Smyth, who died in the Curragh Prison in August, 1997.

He won high praise for the time and attention he gave to the case and the care and courtesy with which he dealt with the witnesses. He won similar praise for his work in the High Court over the last five months.

Mr Justice Kelly is married to Patricia McNamara, a solicitor, who graduated from UCC in 1983 and has her offices at Grand Canal Street, Dublin 4. She did legal work on behalf of the residents of Mespil flats.

The Kellys, who have young children, are described as being a ``low profile family''. They have a holiday home in the West, where Mr Justice Kelly indulges his passion developed in Donegal for trout and salmon angling.

``He likes a bit of codding and a bit of fishing,'' according to a legal friend.

A journalist, who attended UCD with Mr Justice Kelly, described him as being ``fond of a party'' and an ``extrovert''. He still enjoys an occasional social drink in the pubs of Baggot Street; the so-called ``Doheny & Nesbitt set''.