Memories of a radical lawyer

Michael Mansfield will be in Derry this weekend to deliver the annual Bloody Sunday Lecture.
Michael Mansfield will be in Derry this weekend to deliver the annual Bloody Sunday Lecture.

Leading human rights lawyer MICHAEL MANSFIELD QC says the most moving day of his 42-year career was on June 15, 2010, when the Bloody Sunday Inquiry report was published. He returns to Derry this weekend to deliver the Bloody Sunday Lecture. He spoke to the Journal’s SEAN McLAUGHLIN.

Michael Mansfield has made his name fighting cases few others would touch.

As Britain’s most high profile lawyer, he has taken on many of the most controversial cases of our times - Jill Dando and Barry George, Dodi Fayed and Princess Diana, Stephen Lawrence, Jean Charles de Menezes and, of course, the Bloody Sunday Inquiry.

He has represented defendants and their families in criminal trials, appeals, inquests and inquiries - in fact, in some of the most controversial legal cases the British jusicial system has seen, particularly where issues of civil liberty have arisen - hence his role in the Saville hearings: the longest and most expensive inquiry in modern British legal history.

Between 1999 and 2004, he represented three families who had suffered bereavement or serious injury because of the murderous actions of British soldiers in Derry’s Bogside on January 30, 1972.

He spent four years taking a plane from Stansted to Derry at 5 a.m every Monday morning, returning home to London on the 6 p.m. flight every Friday evening.

Is it any wonder, then, that he has a certain connection with Derry or, as he acknowledges himself, “it is like a home away from home.”

This weekend, Mansfield (70) returns “home” to deliver this year’s annual Bloody Sunday Lecture.

It is, he says, like a sort of homecoming.

“I have a great affection for Derry and have many friends there”, he told the ‘Journal’. “My visits there have always been memorable ones, for one reason or another.

“I’ve always believed that the outstanding features of the city and its people are hospitality and humour. They are a very generous people.

“For example, I remember walking to the Guildhall one morning and, out of the blue, a guy runs up to me, grabs my cases out of my hands and makes off towards the Guildhall. I thought to myself, ‘what on earth is going on here?’ Shortly afterwards, I arrive at the Guildhall to find this gentleman standing at the top of the stairs with my cases at his feet. He told me he thought I was looking tired and needed some help. I just said to myself, ‘what an amazing place and people’.”

Mr. Mansfield says he plans to use this year’s commemorative lecture as an opportunity to take a “long view” of the Saville Inquiry and its legacy.“I certainly don’t want to rehearse what took place at the Inquiry,” he says. “There’s no point in that. Everyone in Derry knows it inside-out, upside-down and back-to-front.

“I’d like to discuss the inquiry in a historical context and in terms of the principle of accountability.

“For example, I believe similiarities can be drawn between the Bloody Sunday Inquiry and the Stephen Lawrence case - which, of course, had an interesting conclusion in the past few weeks. What we had in both cases were families with much the same objectives.

“Of course, there are big differences between the two but what both cases succeeded in doing was to make an indelible mark on the judicial and political landscapes in terms of empowering people and giving them an understanding that they can make a difference. In this day and age, this is one of the most important things you can achieve.”

The “long lasting legacy” of the Saville Inquiry, believes Michael Mansfield, is the vindication of the families of those murdered and wounded on Bloody Sunday.

“The ability of the British state to connive at murder and then cover it up was uncovered in a fairly dramatic way.

“This has, in turn, led ordinary members of the public to say, ‘before we accede to the blandishments of politicians, we have to be extraordinarily careful as to what we accept or do not accept’.

“Its legacy is a pathway to a new form of democracy which is, I believe, beginning to emerge across the world.”

Michael Mansfield says that one of the few ways in which the citizen has been able to bring authority to book has been by means of a public inquiry or, in some cases, an inquest.

“It should always be remembered that it was the persistence of the families and relatives which brought about the Bloody Sunday Inquiry,” he says.

The QC, a lawyer for more than 40 years, has acknowledged that, while his own upbringing was a world away from the experiences of young people fighting for civil rights in Northern Ireland, he has always been “fascinated” by Irish history.

Indeed, he says a whole new world opened up when he started representing Irish clients such as the Price sisters and those wrongly convicted of the Guildford and Birmingham pub bombings.

While working at the Bloody Sunday Inquiry, he says he was immediately aware that the inquiry was a “vital part” of the ongoing peace process.

Indeed, he believes the inquiry came close to performing the same role as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa.

The father of six was also in Derry’s Guildhall Square on June 15, 2010 - that remarkable day when thousands gathered to hear British prime minister David Cameron apologise for what had happened on Bloody Sunday.

That day, he says, was the most emotional day of his career.

“I felt a deep sense of satisfaction that I had played a part in rectifying the worst miscarriage of justice in my professional lifetime.”

Michael Mansfield will deliver the annual Bloody Sunday Lecture at the Millennium Forum on Saturday, January 28, at 7.30pm. Earlier in the day, he will sign copies of his book, ‘Memoirs of a Radical Lawyer’, at Eason’s, Foyleside (3.30 p.m.)