Pádraigín Drinan grew up in west Belfast and joined the Republican Labour Party in 1966 on the 50th anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising. “As I was very young and at school, I was probably the only person to bunk off school to go to Stormont… I was secretary of the Republican Labour Party.”
The party was one of the groups that helped set up the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association in 1967. Pádraigín was then involved in organising and running the first civil rights marches, the first one going from Dungannon to Coalisland in August 1968. She was also a member of the Young Socialists at this time.
“The Young Socialists thought that they would march from the Belfast Telegraph to the City Hall to object to Russia invading Czechoslovakia, but the Civil Rights march was on the same day. I was the person who made the posters, so I had placards that had double placards. On the front of them it said ‘Russia Get Out of Czechoslovakia’ and then you took that off and it said ‘One Man One Vote’.”
Pádraigín went to Queen’s University to study law, and was one of only four women in a class of 74. She continued to take part in civil rights meetings and marches. She joined the People’s Democracy and was a member of its ‘faceless committee’, the organisation’s coordinating group.
She continued to be active on civil rights issues as the conflict erupted in 1969 and she worked on campaigns such as the rent and rates strike following the introduction of internment in August 1971.
Pádraigín went to work for the solicitor Christopher Napier. “My very first day was a case challenging internment, the case of Keenan and McIlduff to say that the internment operation was unlawful… The court had found that the internment operation was unlawful because it was improperly carried out. So I went to the prison and met Keenan and McIlduff climbing out of the prison. They came, shook hands with me and the RUC came up, took their other hands, handcuffed them again and brought them back in, arrested them properly and internment went on.”
Pádraigín worked with Christopher Napier in the Association for Legal Justice, where they dealt with many case involving internees and their families. They also worked with families in Derry after Bloody Sunday in January 1972, taking statements that later laid the foundation of the Saville Inquiry.
Their work in internment cases saw them brought as witnesses for the case of Ireland v. United Kingdom at the European Commission on Human Rights, the first inter-state case brought before the body. The case eventually went to the European Court of Human Rights, which found that the use of the ‘five techniques’ amounted to inhuman and degrading treatment, but not torture. “They found it wasn’t torture because they found that the people who had carried it out hadn’t taken pleasure in it, which is a strange definition of torture.”
Around the same time Pádraigín began working with the Equal Opportunities Commission when Eileen Evason took a case against gender discrimination. Many of cases Pádraigín worked on as part of the Commission’s legal unit involved employment discrimination, and they had a number of successes in their cases.
Pádraigín worked with the Belfast Rape Crisis Centre, giving legal advice to women who had suffered sexual abuse. She worked alongside Susan McKay and Sandra Morrison in the early years and later with Eileen Calder and Eileen Kelly. This work could often be very dangerous, especially in cases with paramilitary involvement.
Through the years of the conflict Pádraigín worked alongside many women’s groups – Falls Women’s Centre, Windsor Women’s Centre and Women’s Aid with Cathy Harkin. Most of the work she did involved giving legal advice on issues of domestic violence, but there was also a focus on welfare rights and similar cases.
Pádraigín continued to work on prisoners’ rights cases throughout this period. She took the case of Brogan and others v. the United Kingdom to the European Court, which found its use of seven-day extrajudicial detention to be illegal. “Because of that, when Britain brought the European Convention into British law, at the back of the Human Rights Act, there is a section saying that they have derogated from part of the European Convention because of the decision in Brogan and others.”
In the early 1990s Pádraigín began working with nationalist residents’ groups after being involved with women’s peace camps on Garvaghy Road and Ormeau Road. Through this she began working closely with Rosemary Nelson.
The work that Pádraigín did with residents’ groups and with republican prisoners such as Dominic McGlinchey could be very dangerous. She had to deal with regular death threats as well as a number of attempts on her life.
“I appeared in court, there were loyalists outside the court, I then noticed I was being followed in the car on the way home. I was forced off the road by the car following me. I phoned the Irish government at the time and some others, they sent somebody to meet me and lead me into Belfast. I did a complaint to Nuala O’Loan, she did a complaint to the police having looked at the TV cameras, and when the police came to investigate they asked me how I knew the car following me was a policeman. And until then I hadn’t known, I was complaining that the police had not done anything about it. I hadn’t realised that they had done it.”
Pádraigín has worked with ethnic minority communities throughout her entire career. Over the years this work has increased greatly and she has come across more and more cases of racist treatment and discrimination. “I think that the ethnic minorities here are being treated as Catholics were being treated in 1969 that was the cause of the start of the Civil Rights Movement.”
In many ways Pádraigín has seen the issues on which she has worked worsen in different ways. “There is at the moment anti-terror legislation that is worse than anything was under internment… We have imprisonment without trial, which is a lot worse than internment.”
As Pádraigín retires she speaks clearly on the need for civil rights solicitors. “There will always be a need, unfortunately. The state will always try to overstep the line.”