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.
And lawyer Peirce, who is now presenting her case for the innocence of Abdelbaset Ali al Magrahi - the man convicted of responsibility for the Lockerbie bombing, says: “The right to a fair trial is in many ways difficult to articulate. If a defendant believes his or her prosecution is unjust, does he or she have any concepts to hand onto that are not entirely nebulous, unless they can prove, as those wrongly convicted in Birmingham or Guildford did, that their confessions had been brutally coerced? Or in the case of Judith Ward, where it was proved that the prosecution had withheld for 18 years evidence that disproved her claimed fantasies.”
Human rights legislation is a relatively new addition to British law. And Peirce asks if these rules can be changed or if there are legal concepts that protect a community under blanket suspicion.
During the Troubles, the Irish had some allies. Peirce says: “Much current reminiscence ignores vital factors - above all the weight of the Irish Diaspora and the far-sightedness of those who began and maintained contact, long before Blair was elected and claimed the ultimate prize. Throughout the 30 years of conflict, 40 million Americans of Irish descent formed an electoral statistic no US administration could afford to ignore.”
She believes no similar allies for the Muslim community are evident today, capable of pushing and pulling the British Government publicly or privately into seeing sense.
This summer the families of those killed in Bloody Sunday received the findings of the Saville Report.
“Saville’s conclusions are that one platoon of the Parachute Regiment and one commander bear responsibility and that the chain of command above them could not have foreseen the events of the day,” Peirce says. “There is no finding on the inquiry’s report either that foresight existed or could have prevented the bloody events of the day, which even at the time were immediately recognised by Irish men and women as the actions not of a few rogue soldiers but as actions authorities at the highest level.
“If so substantial an inquiry now could arrive at conclusions that allowed David Cameron to say to the House of Commons that the buck stops with foot soldiers, has the British state in fact owned up to the whole truth?,” she adds. “And how does the precedent set by the Saville Inquiry inform us so important as the second, announced only this summer, into torture? There is nothing in David Cameron’s announcement that guarantees that any of it will be heard in public.”
Peirce argues that the public has never been told what actually happened to lead to the conviction of al-Megrahi.
“Many of the families of those who died when Pan Am 103 exploded over Lockerbie in 1988 have urged for almost as long as the Bloody Sunday families, that there be a searching inquiry into what happened,” she says. “And not one focused instead on the decision, a proper one, and entirely customary on Britain, to release a terminally ill person from prison.”
She adds: “Another dying man in a British prison years before, Giuseppe Conlon, wrongly convinced on the evidence of the same discredited scientists who provided the forensic case against al-Megrahi, was forced to wait for such a decision until the day of his death, when the home secretary, fearful of a political backlash, agreed too late to his release on humanitarian grounds. But the desire for vengeance remained in the air.”
Peirce is solid in her convictions. “There will always be a hunger by a bereaved family and a need by society in general,” she says finally, “ to have an adequate searching enquiry.”