Mary McAleese Delivers PJ McGrory Human Rights Lecture

Irish President delivers her lecture as part of Féile an Phobail

The secret service agent looks the driver in the eye - a white plastic tube snaking up from the folds in his suit to his earpiece - and talks into his wrist. There is no parking inside the grounds of St Mary’s College. Not tonight. The President is coming.

President Mary McAleese isn’t due until 7:30pm, but the instructions from her security team are to have bums on seats a half hour before.

Inside the main auditorium the audience have complied. They’re here in west Belfast for the annual PJ McGrory Human Rights lecture, this year entitled ‘PJ McGrory – Fearless Advocate and True Advocate of Peace’, to be delivered by the President herself.

President Mary McAleese Part1 by CultureNI

For those who aren’t aware of Patrick J McGrory – and tonight, there are few – it’s worth taking the time to learn about the man. A renowned solicitor from west Belfast, McGrory was a republican, but also a constitutionalist, a human rights campaigner, and a tireless advocate of discussion across the divide, ' a perfectionist,' in the words of McAleese, 'held in the highest respect throughout the legal profession'. McGrory died in 1994.

Composer Neil Martin (who played at McGrory's funeral) and pianist Rod McVoy start the evening off with a series of beautiful Irish airs played on piano, cello and Ulian pipes. The audience are respectively silent throughout.

Flanked by her husband Martin and Clara Reilly, chairperson of Relatives for Justice, McAleese enters the hall at 7.25pm to a rapturous reception.

Born in Ardoyne in west Belfast, McAleese is the first President of Ireland to come from Northern Ireland. Famously describing the theme of her presidency to be 'building bridges' - she has called on the Irish populace to celebrate equally both the 12th of July and St Patrick's Day - she devotes the majority of her speech to the same theme, placing particular emphasis on the grave responsibilties of the current generation and those to come.

'What happens here [in the post-Troubles era in Northern Ireland] has very, very important consequences, both locally and internationally,' McAleese comments late on in her speech. 'I think nobody put it better than John Hewitt when he said that 'We build to fill the centuries' arrears'.'

With members of his family having recieved their own warm welcome tonight, and grouped together in the front rows, McAleese pays tribute to her friend and fellow lawyer. She recalls a chance encounter with McGrory on Belfast's Ormeau Avenue after the latter had won a libel case in his own name against certain newspapers.

'It had been a very bitter battle for a man who abhored political violence,' remarks McAleese, 'and for this uttely superb lawyer, whose professional advocacy of certain defendants had led to him being accused of sharing their perspectives.

PJ McGrory Human Rights Lecture: Mary McAleese, Part I by CultureNI

'When [PJ] took that action, he took it not just on his own behalf but on behalf of all lawyers, and indeed on behalf of the supremacy of the law itself. He believed passionately in the right of every single person - no matter what they had done or were accused of doing - to a fair trial, to due process. His win in that case was not just a vindication of himself, but also a vindication of his values, and how he saw lawyers placed inside that value system.

'I crossed the street to go over and congratulate him, and frankly I could see just how tired he was, how drained he was by the sheer struggle of it all. I suggested half jokingly that he should use the money to buy a holiday home somewhere in the sun, a hideaway where he could go and get his strength and energy back, and he said to me, 'Sure it would be only one more place to go...'

'It's reasurring to see that his memory, his legacy and his values - and his uncompromising witness to those values - are held sacred by those who knew and loved and respected him.'

McAleese's oratory is impassioned, informed and frequently unscripted throughout her lecture. In keeping with the title of her lecture she gives her own assessment of the importance of human rights both to the individual and society at large.

'Human rights are not concessions that anyone has the right to begrudgingly leech out to human beings,' McAleese concludes. 'Human rights are exactly what they say they are - they are rights that arise naturally, inately in every human being... no-one has the right to act like they are theirs to dispense, like gifts.'