10Qs: Michael Lavery QC talks to Conall Devlin

Michael Lavery QC speaks to WIP 2012 Intern Conall Devlin about his reflections on law and politics

1.      What were you doing when you were my age?

I was studying in the Bar.

2. How did you get to where you are today?

Well where am I today? I suppose it depends on where I am today…I am the oldest member of the bar. I suppose a lot of luck, because I was doing something that I liked very much and enjoyed and applied myself to it. I suppose you have to show some skills to survive and I’ve managed to survive.

It was always my main interest. That’s not to say its non-stop fun- you have your ups and downs and you get cases that are difficult. But you don’t get a high unless you’ve got a low.

3. Who was the most influential person in your life and why?

My mother because at the age of 14 she explained to me the difference between a barrister and a solicitor and from then on I wanted to become a barrister and nothing else.

4. If there was one thing that you could change about the Northern Irish political system, what would it be and why?

I’ve given a lot of thought to this question and I always think about what Churchill said about democracy that it was the worst form of government except for the ones that have already been tried. The thing about democracy in Northern Ireland is that it is not really applicable anyway in the sense that the majority of the people decide how they are going to be governed but the great thing about democracy is that it restrains the excesses of dictators. As far as the system in Northern Ireland is concerned, it is not democratic in the sense that it is majority rule. It is an artificial system which has been constructed to make sure that everybody feels committed to the government or can feel committed to the government. It’s not ideal, but it has done its job- it has brought relative peace to the community and it’s accepted by the people and I can’t think of any way to improve it until such a time where we can have normal democracy here.

5. What advice would you give to a young university graduate from Northern Ireland?

Make up your mind what you want to do. Pick something that you really like, that you’re really interested in, and get stuck in.

6. If you were not practicing law, what would you have liked to have done?

That’s a difficult question because I am so absorbed in the practice of law I couldn’t envisage myself having wanted to do anything else, but I suppose if I hadn’t been a lawyer I might have liked to have been a surgeon or the conductor of an orchestra although my knowledge of music is minimal! These are sort of Walter Mitty fantasies.

7. What has been, in your opinion, the most significant change in law over the last 20 years?

The introduction of the Convention of Human Rights into domestic law of the United Kingdom. I think it has made very considerable differences. Although in theory the courts would pay respect to the convention, it wasn’t until it was introduced into the domestic law was it really given teeth. The previous system clearly wasn’t protecting human rights so I believe it has had enormous benefit in the protection of rights and making people conscious of the necessity to protect rights in all aspects of life.

8. What is the most important legal case that you have been involved in?

Probably the most important case was DPP v Lynch in which the House of Lords decided for the first time that duress could be a defence to murder.

9. Do you feel the outcome of the Bloody Sunday Inquiry has vindicated all those involved? What do you think was the extent of the British Government’s involvement in Bloody Sunday and the subsequent inquiry?

There’s no doubt about it- what the inquiry has done very satisfactorily is it has cleared the names of all of the victims who were subject to this slur that was put upon them that they were gunmen and so forth. To that extent the families were delighted with the results. But what the inquiry failed in two respects- firstly, it failed to identify the actual killers, and this was never going to be possible because of what happened on the night of the shooting. The soldiers wrongly were allowed to clear their weapons therefore it was impossible to trace any particular bullet to any particular victim. The second failing in the inquiry is that it did not identify why did the shooting happen- if something like this had happened in any English city the government would probably have fallen. Not a single soldier or officer involved in Bloody Sunday ever suffered any detriment as a result of this which was a catastrophe.

The question is why did they behave in that way? They sent in a number of heavily armed paratroopers who were trained to respond quickly- why was it necessary to send troopers into a crowd of this sort? The only justification must be that they thought they might be fired upon. But if they thought they were going to be fired upon they were going to have a gun battle in the midst of a crowd of women and children and inevitably there would have been casualties so they should never have been sent in heavily armed at all.

The soldiers felt they were consorting with the enemy- they didn’t feel the constraints of shooting their own countrymen and that was part of the reason it happened and that mindset was never really addressed by Saville. The cause for it was a few maverick soldiers who were trigger happy. Of course there were criticisms for the army about how they engaged in the operation but not why they engaged. The notion that Derry was just another British city was not how the army regarded it.

Though they did their conscientious best, the other thing about the inquiry was that there wasn’t a single Northern Irish lawyer involved either for the security forces or for the tribunal itself. It sends a sort of signal as to how the establishment regarded Northern Ireland.

10. What is your view on the upcoming US Presidential Election?

It is very difficult for somebody who isn’t in the country to rely on the media- how accurate that it I don’t know. What I do know is that there is never a very big turnout in US Presidential Elections and secondly that Americans are very Conservative people. Liberal centre politicians in Europe would be regarded as left wing extremists in America. I also think about what CP Snow said: “The more you get closer to power, the more you realise there is no absolute power”. Obama might be the most powerful man in the world but he is limited in the things he can do in America and anywhere else. My feeling would be that anything that would make the American system less conservative is infinitely preferable to electing Conservative government therefore I hope Obama gets back. His heart is in the right place but he is constrained by internal politics and by international pressures as well.