The High Sheriff

On this First day of January Two Thousand and Eleven, Owen Patterson, one of Her Majesty’s Principal Secretaries of State wrote to me, “Whereas I have been pleased to nominate you for and to be Sheriff of the County Borough of Belfast during Her Majesty’s pleasure: These are therefore to require you to take the Custody of the said County Borough, and duly to perform the duties of Sheriff thereof during Her Majesty’s pleasure, and whereof you are duly to answer according to the Law.”

Section (1) of the Local Government (Ireland) Act 1898 provided for the appointment of a Sheriff for the new County Borough (i.e. City) of Belfast, the first being James Henderson in 1900, followed by Otto Jaffe the next year. In September each year, Belfast City Council is invited by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to submit the names of three people suitable for appointment over the coming three years. For a number of years now, the Council has restricted itself to putting forward one name to fill the position, the latest being myself.

Each December, the incoming High Sheriff is advised by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland of his/her appointment for the coming calendar year. The letter of appointment contains a warrant of appointment signed by the Secretary of State and a “Declaration of Sheriff”, which has to be sworn before a Commissioner of Oaths, stating particularly that I have not “granted or promised for reward or benefit for myself, or any person for me, or for my use, directly or indirectly, my sheriffwick, or any bailiwick thereof, or any office belonging thereunto, or the profits of the same, to any person or persons whomsoever; I will truly and diligently execute the good laws and statutes of this realm; and in all things well and truly behave myself in the office for the honour of the Queen, and the good of Her subjects, and discharge the same according to the best of my skill and power.”

The Office of High Sheriff is the oldest secular Office in the United Kingdom after the Crown and dates from Saxon times. Its exact date of origin is unknown but the Office has certainly existed for over a thousand years since Shires were formed. The term “Sheriff” derives from “Shire Reeve” or the Anglo-Saxon Scir-gerefa. The King’s Reeve was also known as the “High” Reeve. Some Sheriffs led contingents at the Battle of Hastings. The Normans extended the powers of the Office until they became quite considerable. The High Sheriffs had law enforcement powers and could raise the “hue and cry” in pursuit of felons within their Shire; they could summon and command the posse comitatus-the full power of the Shire in the service of the Sovereign. Gradually however, over the centuries , their powers were reduced, so that my duties are now mainly civic and ceremonial. I am required to attend civic functions at City Hall hosted by the Lord Mayor, deputise for him/her and give general support. I will also be invited with my spouse to greet a member of the Royal Family or Head of State visiting the County Borough, unless the visit is a private or purely working one.

Ed: Many congratulations, Ian! Hope soon to have a photo of you in your ceremonial robes. And thanks for the etymological note. “Sheriff” conjures up, for me, Robin Hood and the Wild West. And I'm glad to find that the word has nothing to do with the Sherif, or Guardian, of the Holy Places in Mecca and Medina, a role once held by the Hashemite family (from whom the King of Jordan descends) until driven out by Ibn Saud. -James

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