Shami Chakrabarti

Garbhan Downey attends the civil rights lawyer's keynote lecture for the British Council at the Derry Playhouse

The British Council’s 75th birthday celebrations drew to a close in Derry’s magnificently restored Playhouse this week, with an address from the person once described as ‘the most dangerous woman in Britain’.

Shami Chakrabarti - Director of Liberty (the National Council for Civil Liberties), and a popular panellist on everything from Question Time to Have I Got News for You - delivered a comprehensive and compelling defence of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to a packed house that included the Nobel Peace laureate John Hume.

Chakrabarti has been vilified by sections of the tabloid press for her opposition to anti-terrorism legislation. Liberty recently spearheaded the successful campaign against government plans to hold terrorism suspects for 42 days without charge.

But the former Home Office barrister immediately put the large gathering at ease, by joking that if she was indeed the most dangerous woman in the country, then Britain was a very safe place indeed.

She further endeared herself to the politically-astute audience, by pointing up the ‘delicious irony’ that both the British Council and her own group had been established in 1934. ‘Back then, people thought that the Council was a front for spooks and Liberty was a front for the Communist Party,’ she remarked to loud laughs.

In a more serious vein, Chakrabarti spoke about the challenges for human rights advocates in a ‘surveillance society’, where so much personal privacy had been lost.

She also talked about the 42-day detention limit, and how ‘new media’ campaigning, involving the internet and the micro-site 42 Writers for Liberty, had helped defeat it. Chakrabarti said she knew they had won as soon as she heard the former MI5 head, Baroness Manningham-Buller, refer to the 42-day plan as ‘unworkable’ in the House of Lords.

That campaign, incidentally, saw the Sun journalist John Gaunt label Chakrabarti with the ‘most dangerous’ tag. But a short time later the pair became good friends, after she stuck up for him when he was fired by TalkSport for describing a Tory contributor as a ‘health Nazi’. Chakrabarti believes that you can’t employ someone as a shock-jock and then sack them for what they say on air.

Human rights and the UN Declaration of 1948 are central to Liberty’s work, and Chakrabarti expressed concern at the ‘unpicking’ of so many rights in the face of terrorist scares.

But she also cited a number of case studies where small determined groups had triumphed over governments. And she paid particular tribute to David Enright, the Derry lawyer, who, with Joanna Lumley, led the hugely-publicised campaign to allow former Gurkhas to live in the UK. ‘It was a wonderful campaign that united the Sun and the Mirror – along with people over there and the people here,’ she said. ‘There is an ocean of altruism there to be tapped.’

Taking questions at the end of the lecture, Chakrabarti surprisingly revealed that much of her working day can be spent protecting the rights of young people, who have become Public Enemy Number One.

‘We get more hate mail when we speak up against mosquito devices [security tools emitting high-pitched sounds which can only be heard by people under-25] and children-free zones, than on immigration,’ she remarked. She made a point, however, of paying tribute to the Nerve Centre, Derry’s innovative multi-media complex for young people, which she visited earlier in the day. ‘Every town should have one,’ she said. ‘It’s an incredibly cool place.’

She revealed that she had never had a warmer welcome in any city she had ever visited – and wished Derry well in its bid to become UK City of Culture 2013.

The Playhouse event had been organised by Shona McCarthy, NI Director of the British Council, which promotes international cultural relations. McCarthy commended the tremendous renovation of the Playhouse and echoed Chakrabarti’s sentiments as regards Derry’s Culture 2013 bid, as did the head of the British Council’s UK Directorate, Colm McGivern.

Read a full transcription of Chakrabarti's lecture here.