Northern Ireland

All the way to Strasbourg

ECHR in Strasbourg
Image caption The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg

Twenty years ago, people from Northern Ireland with limited geographical knowledge of France had heard of only two of its cities.

One is obvious but the other - a provincial city on the edge of the Alps to which no-one ever went on holiday - had become familiar here for more prosaic reasons.

"We are going to take this all the way to Strasbourg" seemed to become as much part of some Northern Ireland solicitors' vernacular as the Latin phrases they had learned in law school.

Strasbourg is the seat of the European Court of Human Rights, the last recourse for those frustrated by their own domestic legal system.

Northern Ireland's civil conflict ensured a steady stream of lawyers would walk frustrated from a British court to tell the media of their plans for a trip to France.

Public eye

The relationship between the decisions in those cases and the legal system today was one of the subjects of a recent lecture given by Mr Justice Seamus Treacy, a High Court judge, at the West Belfast Festival.

It is rare enough in Northern Ireland to hear from a judge outside his windowless courtroom.

They tend to stay in their exalted shadows, not least because of the ongoing threat posed by dissident republicans.

However, Mr Justice Treacy is no stranger to the public eye, intentionally or not.

In 1998, he and another lawyer went to court to argue against having to swear an oath to the Queen in order to become senior barristers.

Last year, he had to move house after a pipe bomb, believed to have been planted by dissidents, was found nearby.

It would therefore be difficult to argue that he is a judge ensconced in an ivory tower unable or unwilling to see how a court's decisions can impact on ordinary lives.

During his speech - in memory of Belfast-based solicitor PJ McGrory - he came back again and again to the importance of human rights in informing judicial decisions.

"The rule of law is what separates the civilised and politically mature democracy from other regimes where citizens do not have an effective voice to challenge abuses of state power," he told his audience.

Human rights

The elevation to the judiciary of a lawyer so publically and explicitly wedded to human rights mirrors the way in which the legal system has changed.

Image caption The European Court of Human Rights made a ruling on the British government's handling of the murder of Pat Finucane

Since 1998, going to Strasbourg has not always been such a pressing priority.

The Human Rights Act of that year incorporated into UK law the European Convention on Human Rights - the protection of which was the duty of the Strasbourg court.

And, according to Mr Justice Treacy, the way things are now has been heavily influenced by the cases taken from Ireland - north and south - during the Troubles.

Some which led to changes in police behaviour, for example the practice of denying detainees access to their lawyers for a time after they were arrested.

Others including rulings on the killings of three IRA men in Gibraltar and the murder of solicitor Pat Finucance were more fundamental decisions which have left the British government having to vigorously defend itself before the court of public opinion.

The Strasbourg rulings have also been reflected in more recent arguments about human rights.

In the case of Ireland v United Kingdom, the Irish government successfully argued that techniques employed against suspects during the period of internment in the early 1970s had amounted to "inhumane and degrading treatment".

Torture

However, the court stopped short of calling the treatment "torture".

As Mr Justice Treacy reflected in his speech, the debate about techniques used by the American military in recent years - particularly the waterboarding of suspects in Guantanamo Bay - has covered similar ground.

Whether the incorporation of the Convention into UK law will eventually ground flights to Strasbourg permanently seems unlikely.

In the recent past, Chris Ward, a man accused of being an insider in the Northern Bank robbery - and subsequently found not guilty - went all the way to the House of Lords to argue that his lengthy detention without charge should be ruled unlawful.

The next step beyond the House of Lords - the highest court of appeal in the UK - is to head to France.

Mr Justice Treacy appeared to argue that the presence of the court will always be necessary.

"Recent events following 9/11 and 7/7 show that protecting human rights is a bit like fire-fighting - you put out one fire only to discover that it has reignited in another context".

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