Gareth Peirce is famed for her fierce commitment to her clients, meticulous attention to detail, tireless hard work and for not wanting the spotlight to fall on herself, rather her clients. The acclaimed human rights lawyer, whose career has spanned over 30 years, has appeared for the Birmingham Six, Judith Ward, the family of Jean Charles de Menezes and Moazzam Begg, among others.
It has been said that when Gareth Peirce takes a case, both journalists’ and lawyers’ ears prick up. It’s little wonder. For more than 20 years, Peirce has represented many wrongly accused Irish men and women who stood trial in England with over 20 successful appeals, including the case of the Guildford Four, who were convicted of an IRA bomb attack in 1974. They were later freed by the Court of Appeal.
Her recent essays for the London Review of Books were written, she says, as an urgent SOS in relation to torture and complicity in Britain.
Speaking last week at the LRB bookshop in central London she spoke about how the moment is here to confront these issues, helped in part by the fact that there is a new Government in place under whose watch these did not happen.
Peirce’s essays call for an accounting of the British Government’s activities in the torture, rendition and internment without trial of those suspected of involvement in terrorism. She notes that while the Obama administration - under pressure from its anti-war base - has begun to release select evidence of the widespread use of torture in the War on Terror, Britain remains almost completely in the dark about the part its intelligence services and Government played. A judicial review into Britain’s role in torture and rendition since September 2001 was only announced in July by the coalition Government.
Peirce has been at the heart of some of the biggest cases heard in British courts. Since the 1970s she has represented many in their appeals against wrongful convictions made on the basis of disputed scientific evidence, misidentification and police malpractice.
She started life as a student at Cheltenham’s Ladies College, later studied at Oxford and then began working in the United States, where in the 1960’s she experienced the civil rights movement. On her return to Britain she completed a postgraduate at the London School of Economics and was recruited by the law firm run by Benedict Birnberg.
But despite her fame and fierce reputation – Peirce was played by actress Emma Thompson in the controversial film about the Guildford Four, In The Name Of The Father - she is in person a softly spoken woman, eyes gazing out serenely from beneath an unruly fringe.
Her first question to a captive audience at the LRB bookshop is to ask if she can be heard at the back of the room. “I know I have a quiet voice,” she says into the microphone with a smile, “which is useful only sometimes for getting into police stations when I’m not expected.”
But despite her unassuming demeanour, there is no forgetting that Gareth Peirce has been credited as having almost single-handedly transforming the criminal justice scene in Britain. And when she speaks, you listen.
Peirce finds parallels between the suffocating blanket of suspicion faced by the Irish during the Troubles and the Muslim community today – as well as some differences.
“The last several years have found us in the midst of more such catastrophes than we could ever, in our worst nightmares, have dreamed of,” she says. “We could never have envisaged that the history of the new century would encompass the destruction and distortion of fundamental Angle-American legal and political constitutional principals in place since the 17th century.”
She believes it was injustice itself, again and again, that created and fuelled the conflict in the North of Ireland.
“To map its 33 year trajectory is to discover that before Bloody Sunday, when British soldiers shot and killed 13 unarmed Catholic demonstrators who were marching to demand not in fact a united Ireland but equal rights in employment, education and housing, the IRA was a diminished organisation, unable to recruit,” she says.
“After Bloody Sunday, overnight volunteers from every part of Ireland and every background came forward. Throughout the years of bloody armed conflict, every lawless action on behalf of the British state provoked a similar reaction - internment, shoot to kill, the use of torture, brutally obtained false confessions and fabricated evidence. All of this was registered at the time by the community most affected, while the British public, in whose name these actions were taken remained ignorant – that the state was seen to be combating terrorism sufficed.”
Muslim families around the world are now registering the ill-treatment of their community in Britain and recognising the analogies with the experiences of the Irish, who suffered similar injustices in decades past.