Gibson, Sir Maurice (1913–87), judge, was born 1 May 1913 in Belfast, son of William James Gibson, chemist, and his wife, Edith Mary. He was educated at the RBAI and took a first-class honours degree at QUB. In 1938 he was called to the Northern Ireland bar, after taking first place in the bar council examinations (for which he received a special prize and a certificate of honour). Gibson devilled with Bernard J. Fox (1885–1977); he had eight pupils during his career, several of whom achieved professional distinction. In 1945 he married Cecily Johnston; they had a son and a daughter. The Gibsons were active in Fisherwick presbyterian church (south Belfast), where Gibson's father had been an elder. Gibson was involved in the scouting movement throughout his adult life, eventually becoming Northern Ireland chairman of the Scouting Association of Ireland, while Lady Gibson was chief commissioner of the Northern Ireland girl guides.
Gibson developed a highly successful practice as a chancery lawyer, taking silk in 1956 and becoming a bencher of the Northern Ireland inns of court in 1961. He possessed an outstanding legal mind and was seen as preferring quiet logic to dramatic performance; in 1968 he was described by the Northern Ireland lord chief justice, John Clarke MacDermott (qv), as the best lawyer at the Northern Ireland bar. He served as a Northern Ireland high court judge, 1968–75 (joining the restrictive practices court in 1971), and was appointed a lord justice of appeal in 1975, when he was knighted. He was a member of several government committees on Northern Ireland law reform, deputy chairman of the Northern Ireland boundary commission, 1971–5, and chairman of the board of the Northern Ireland Legal Quarterly.
In 1974 the Garda discovered an IRA plot to assassinate Gibson at his holiday home at Kilcar, Co. Donegal (built on land acquired in the 1960s). The institution during the Northern Ireland troubles of non-jury courts (to avoid the intimidation of jurors) placed increased emphasis on the role of judges. Gibson was widely regarded as a tough sentencer. Nationalist commentators, including Father Denis Faul (qv) (1932–2006), claimed that in cases involving the shooting of civilians by security forces he was inclined to give undue credence to the claims of the perpetrators, conferring acquittals or lenient sentences. (The case of an eleven-year-old Armagh girl, Majella O'Hare, shot in August 1976 by a soldier who claimed to have seen a gunman, was particularly controversial). His decisions were not, however, political; in 1984 he acquitted a large group of INLA prisoners after finding the supergrass Jackie Grimley unworthy of belief, and in October 1985 he sat on the appeal court panel that quashed the murder conviction of Dominic McGlinchey (qv).
On 25 April 1987 the Gibsons returned via Dublin from a holiday in Devon. (They had chosen not to travel via Larne because they wished to arrive in time to attend a scout and guide concert in Belfast). Their car was escorted by Gardaí, who turned back at the border; soon after the Gibsons entered the one-mile zone between the border and the British army checkpoint at Killeen, they were killed by an IRA car bomb at the side of the road. Gibson was the fifth member of the Northern Ireland judiciary killed in the troubles; at the time of his death he was the most senior judge on the bench (after the lord chief justice) and within a year of retirement.
An IRA statement called Gibson a ‘show trial judge’ who had been brought to ‘the final court of justice’. The murders were widely condemned; Father Faul declared that it was a mortal sin to be a member of the Provisional IRA. Sinn Féin, however, claimed that as a member of a ‘corrupt judiciary’ he was ‘part of the British war machine’; a Sinn Féin councillor in Armagh accused a local priest, who asked for prayers for the Gibsons at mass, of ‘selective condemnation’ involving ‘deliberate omission’ of nationalist victims. The Gibsons' children asked politicians to stay away from the funeral to avoid a political demonstration.
The car bomb must have been planned some days in advance, and the Ulster Unionist Party leader, James Molyneaux, attributed the Gibsons' death to an IRA informant within the Garda Síochána. This was rejected by the Irish government, which pointed out that the Gibsons had committed serious security lapses (including booking four months in advance through a Belfast travel agency, using their real names, and travelling with a ferry company that required identification details and dates of travel). Allegations of Garda collusion persisted; in 2003 the Canadian judge Peter Cory, appointed to investigate official records and decide whether there were grounds for a public inquiry into several alleged cases of state collusion in murder, decided that there was insufficient evidence against the Garda in the case of the Gibsons. Maurice Gibson's career and fate highlight the problems faced by even the most brilliant legal mind administering justice in a divided society enduring civil war.