Inauguration of Sir Donnell Deeny as Pro-Chancellor

Saloon, Provost's House

27 March 2014

Chancellor, Pro-Chancellors and retired Pro-Chancellors,
Visitor to the College;
Distinguished guests, and colleagues;

It’s my great pleasure to welcome you here today for the inauguration of Sir Donnell Deeny as Pro-Chancellor of the University of Dublin. 

I will say a few brief words about the Pro-chancellorship, before asking Sir Donnell to make the statutory declaration, and give his address to you.

Pro-Chancellors are ex officio members of the Senate of the University, and hold office in their own right. They deputise for the Chancellor in accordance with the Statutes.

For the Chancellor and Pro-Chancellors, the conferring of degrees at commencements is the primary commitment. The Chancellor is also one of the two Visitors to the College; this entails hearing cases from staff and students on all sorts of issues.  In these matters the Pro-Chancellors are called on to deputise for the Chancellor as needed.

The University of Dublin is very fortunate to have in these offices very eminent individuals. And this evening is about adding a new name to this distinguished list. 

Sir Donnell Deeny has been a judge of the High Court in Northern Ireland since 2004, and since 2007 presiding judge of the Chancery Division, with responsibility for Companies, Trusts, Insolvency, Land Law, Probate, Inheritance, Equity et alia. He has given judgments in numerous high profile cases including, in recent times, the Sean Quinn bankruptcy case, in which, you will recall, he wrote a landmark judgment on what constituted a ‘centre of main interest’ in European Insolvency Law. He found that Mr Quinn’s centre of main interest was in the Republic, and so revoked his Northern Ireland bankruptcy.

Previous to being elevated to the bench Sir Donnell had a most eminent career as a Queen’s Counsel, and indeed as a Senior Counsel in Ireland. He was called to the Bar in three jurisdictions - Northern Ireland; England & Wales; and Ireland.

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As a student here in Trinity in the early 1970s, Donnell Deeny was notable, not only for his academic achievements, but for his versatility and success in many spheres. He was auditor, and gold medallist, of the Hist, and he took the Irish Times Debating Trophy three times - the only person in the history of the competition to have managed this feat.

On the occasion of a public debate on whether Robert Emmet’s epitaph should now be written, held to mark the 200th anniversary of the Hist, he was the only student invited to speak.  Up against immensely experienced speakers, including John Hume, and the ever-combative Vincent Browne, it is recorded that he delivered a brilliant speech that received more attention in the next day’s papers than any of the others.

Sir Donnell’s student extracurricular activities went well beyond the debating chambers. He served on the SRC, and took leading roles in performances in Players. As editor of the College magazine, the TCD Miscellany, he introduced a poetry section which attracted what he has called ‘a blizzard of submissions’ and meant that he was the first to publish the poet and founder of Gallery Press, Peter Fallon.

This ‘interdisciplinarity’, if such I may call it, has continued throughout Sir Donnell’s career. His sphere of interests and influence goes well beyond the legal. He has, in particular, maintained a strong commitment to the arts. I don’t have time to enumerate all his activities, but let me just mention his five-year chairmanship of Opera Northern Ireland, his presidency of the Ulster Architectural Heritage Society and his vice-presidency of the Irish Legal History Society, both of which positions he continues to hold today.

The Irish Legal History Society is one of the few cross-border academic societies on this island. Sir Donnell is a natural promoter of cross-border and cross-community relations, perhaps by virtue of his upbringing and education which have left him almost equally at home in Dublin as in Belfast. In 1983 he served as High Sheriff of Belfast.

As chairman of the Arts Council of Northern Ireland from 1993 to 1998, he was instrumental in setting up the Ireland Chair of Poetry, which is a partnership between the two Arts Councils in Ireland, and Trinity College Dublin, Queen’s University Belfast, and University College Dublin.

The distinguished holders of this Chair have included John Montague, Michael Longley, Harry Clifton, and the present incumbent Paula Meehan. I can say, from personal experience, how motivating and inspiring it is, for staff and students alike, to have a major poet reside in college. I thank Sir Donnell for the vision and commitment which helped make the Ireland Chair of Poetry possible.

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His familiarity with artists and their practise perhaps helped Sir Donnell deliver his magisterial judgment in the Michael Stone case in 2008. You will recall that Michael Stone broke into Stormont in 2006, carrying with him an array of weapons. As defence he claimed that his incursion was ‘performance art’. If he hoped to take the judge out of his comfort zone through this appeal to avant-garde art practise, he was not successful. In a three-hour judgment Sir Donnell concluded sharply that Stone was carrying “deadly weapons, not symbols”; that "action constituting performance art cannot justify the use of violence, the threat of violence, or putting others at risk of violence”; and that a number of Stone’s explanations were simply “nonsense”. 

Sir Donnell’s direct, erudite and lucid writing style is evident in his judgments as in his publications and essays, some of which have a Trinity angle. And Sir Donnell contributed a witty and informative essay to the book, Trinity Tales, where he captures brilliantly the undergraduate atmosphere of the early 1970s. He writes of the many ‘solid Ulstermen’ like himself found on campus during his time, and regrets that ‘Northerners are now reduced to a small percentage of the University’.

We also regret this situation, which has come about not through the wishes of Trinity, nor of Northern Irish students, but because of the growth of two separate admissions systems on this island, the CAO and UCAS.

We must all aim to reverse this decline in Northern Irish numbers. Trinity has been, since its foundation in 1592, an all-island university and that must be maintained. Sir Donnell has been most helpful in our initiative, and has put his knowledge, experience, and enthusiasm at our service. He has been working with the Senior Lecturer, Dr Patrick Geoghegan on this.

And let me say how delighted I am to see here tonight so many of our Northern Ireland student ambassadors, whose work on the initiative has been invaluable.

By his signal professional achievements and honours, Sir Donnell Deeny has proved himself a barrister and judge of the first rank; by his distinction in directing and chairing diverse boards, he has proved himself a public servant of commitment and integrity; and through his constant interest in and willingness to engage with this college, he has proved himself a true friend of Trinity.

It is with the greatest pleasure that I welcome one with such an impeccable record to the Pro-Chancellorship of the University of Dublin.

Sir Donnell Deeny is the 56th Pro-Chancellor to be appointed to this role since the foundation of the College in 1592.


Provost               In accordance with the 2010 Consolidated Statutes of Trinity College Dublin and of the University of Dublin, Donnell Justin Patrick Deeny, having been nominated in accordance with Section 6, Sub-section (3)(b) of the Chapter on the Chancellor, was declared elected a Pro-Chancellor of the University of Dublin on 11 December 2013. In accordance with Section 2, Sub-section (2)(4) of the said Chapter, I now invite Sir Donnell to make the statutory declaration:

Sir Donnell      I, Donnell Justin Patrick Deeny, solemnly declare that I shall faithfully discharge the duties prescribed for the Pro-Chancellor by the Statutes, and that I shall, so far as in me lies, promote and defend the welfare and interests of the University

Provost robes Sir Donnell Deeny

Provost               Sir Donnell is now admitted to the Office of Pro-Chancellor of the University of Dublin. I invite Sir Donnell to address you.

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