Hunger striker turned lawyer in long-time fight for social justice

Michael Farrell earned his stripes in the bad old days of the Troubles before taking on human rights cases in the Republic

In the early 1970s he was arrested after clambering on top of an armoured personnel carrier on the Falls Road in Belfast to address protesters. He later appeared as a defendant in a courtroom in which the first two rows of seats were taken up by armed soldiers.

Earlier during that troubled time in Northern Ireland, he was interned. Later, when he was jailed for his part in the Falls Road protest, he went on a hunger strike that lasted for 35 days.

They are unusual CV entries for a member of the legal profession. But Michael Farrell, outgoing senior solicitor with the Free Legal Advice Centres (Flac), has spent his life combining his professional activities with the fight for social justice.

A native of Magherafelt, Co Derry, Farrell studied English at Queens and politics at Strathclyde, and had come back to work in Northern Ireland when the civil rights movement exploded. A founding member of the People’s Democracy group, he was hit on the head with a concrete block during the famous 1969 four-day march from Belfast to Derry, but returned to the march after receiving treatment.


Sitting in a cafe near the Flac offices on Dublin’s Dorset Street, Farrell remarks ruefully that he had not expected the resistance to change in Northern Ireland to be so “vehement”.

By the early 1980s, the situation was so grim, “with atrocities being committed on both sides”, that the space for political activity had diminished.

So Farrell came south, where he found work as a freelance subeditor with The Irish Times, then Magill and, finally, as a staff journalist with the Irish Press. He wrote about the Guildford Four and the Birmingham Six, as well as Judith Ward, the troubled young woman who was jailed in England after confessing to a 1974 IRA bombing in which 12 people, including two children, were killed.

Farrell says he spoke to the IRA woman who actually planted the bomb and who told him Ward had nothing to do with either the bomb or the IRA. The Ward case, he says now, was “really sad”.

Remedy injustice

A growing interest in the law saw Farrell study for a diploma with the Dublin Institute of Technology, after which he sat the Law Society’s exams. While his work on wrongful conviction cases had contributed to his interest, so too had the view that “legislation could remedy injustice, especially in relation to discrimination.”

Farrell landed a job with Dublin law firm ME Hanahoe's, where the mix of his work included "a lot of political stuff", including cases in the Special Criminal Court. There were also libel actions against a number of UK media outlets that, he said, continued to "snipe" at the Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four even after they had been released from prison.

As a co-chair of the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, he was involved in the push to get the provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights incorporated into domestic law north and south of the Border, as well as the establishment of human rights commissions in both jurisdictions as part of the Good Friday Agreement.

Farrell’s move to Flac in 2005 allowed him to further concentrate on what he calls “strategic litigation”. By this he means cases where the first duty is to the particular client while recognising that a win will have wider benefits.

He cites child benefit payments to children in direct provision and appeals against decisions to refuse social welfare payments as examples of the type of work he did. He also notes that when the child benefit principle was won, the State promptly changed the law.

There can be a tension between the interests of a client who wants to settle a case and aspiring for a ruling that will have wider implications. But Farrell says he never found it to be a huge problem and points out that successive settlements create their own precedent.

One of the most high-profile cases he was involved with was that of Dr Lydia Foy, who first went to court in 1997, with Flac's backing, seeking to compel the State to issue her with a new birth certificate stating she was female.

The High Court ruled in 2007 that the State's failure to legislate for transgender people violated the European Convention on Human Rights, but Foy had to go back to court again years later as nothing had happened as a result of the earlier decision.

Earlier this year, following the passage of legislation, Foy finally received her birth certificate stating that she was female.

In the end, Farrell said, the State moved and, in fact, went further than had been expected. However, he still believes the law giving effect to the provisions of the European Convention is, as it now stands, ineffective. That’s because the only remedy it provides for failure by the State to comply is damages. He would like it if the Government were obliged to react within a particular timeframe to court rulings that State laws are not compatible with the convention.

The Foy case was 18 years start to finish, he says. “How many cases like that can you do in a lifetime?”

On a more general point, Farrell believes the Irish Constitution does not protect economic and social rights adequately. It was this topic he chose to address when he was asked to deliver the annual Flac Dave Ellis Memorial Lecture in December. He talk was called Using the Law to Secure Social Justice.

Automatic effect

While the State has ratified a host of international conventions that cover such rights as access to food, accommodation and an adequate standard of living, Ireland does not give these conventions automatic legal effect.

In his lecture, Farrell urged that candidates in the upcoming general election be asked to commit to holding a referendum for the insertion of economic, cultural and social rights into the Constitution, as well as amending the European Convention of Human Rights Act to improve its effectiveness.

Better constitutional protections in such areas are common in many European countries, and Farrell does not see such a development as an encroachment of the courts into the political domain. “The objective is to provide for a basic level of support,” he says.

Such a role for the courts, Farrell says, could act as a counterweight to pressures to direct public money towards more politically popular directions, at the expense of the weakest members of society.