Another Northern Ireland Human Rights Lawyer Under Attack

Here we go again. Another British Member of Parliament (MP) has vilified someone working at a human rights law firm in Northern Ireland.

On Tuesday, during a parliamentary debate on the British government’s terrible legislative proposals to deny people’s right to prosecute former British security personnel and others from crimes committed during the 1969-1998 conflict, MP Ian Paisley referred to a  “legal practitioner” representing the family of Colum Marks, an IRA man shot dead by the police in 1991, as “vindictive” and a “snake oil salesman.”

Solicitor Gavin Booth of the firm Phoenix Law has represented the Marks family since 2015.

Under British parliamentary privilege, MPs are protected against legal liability for statements made in the course of their legislative duties.  Booth challenged Paisley to repeat the remarks outside the protection of parliamentary privilege.

Slurs against human rights lawyers in Northern Ireland have a long and terrible history. Three weeks before Belfast human rights lawyer Pat Finucane was murdered in his home by paramilitaries in February 1989, British MP Douglas Hogg told parliament there were a number of lawyers in Northern Ireland “unduly sympathetic to the IRA.”

The NGO named after Pat Finucane, which now works with victims and survivors of the conflict, responded to Paisley’s remarks: “As we saw with Pat Finucane, words can be lethal, though no-one is suggesting that was the intention… the intention was to abuse parliamentary privilege to denigrate the reputation and professionalism of a very diligent member of the legal profession who is doing his job.”

Human Rights First is one of many groups that has supported the Finucane family’s calls for a full independent public inquiry into the lawyer’s murder for decades.

Prominent Northern Ireland legal academic Colin Harvey has also endured years of targeting on social media for his work. In the context of Northern Ireland, these attacks are potentially incendiary. Those familiar with the political landscape in Northern Ireland know that vilification can be a prelude to something else. Allies often use the phrase, “we know where this can lead.”

One example is the campaign of vilification and slurs against human rights lawyer Rosemary Nelson:  she was murdered in 1999.

I know Booth’s work and know him to be a leading human rights lawyer with a long record of diligent legal work. Those wanting to show support for Booth should post on social media or issue statements – such actions can make a difference. Harvey said the solidarity he received from around the world when he was attacked on social media was very important.

The Law Society of Northern Ireland responded to Paisley’s speech by reiterating calls for “attacks on lawyers” to stop. The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers should also look at what is happening here.

Meanwhile, the British government is confident that the legislation being debated when Paisley made his remarks is likely to be passed into law in September, even though all major parties in Northern Ireland, the Irish government, victims’ groups and human rights NGOs oppose it. If it becomes law, it will prevent future criminal and civil cases, as well as inquests, into Northern Ireland conflict-related crimes.



  • Brian Dooley

Published on July 21, 2023


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