Belfast Telegraph

Monday 21 April 2014

Eilis McDermott: From student radical to inquisitor-in-chief of Gerry Adams

... But how much do we really know about Northern Ireland's first female QC?

Sinn Fein Leader Gerry Adams speaking to the media at Leinster House
Sinn Fein Leader Gerry Adams speaking to the media at Leinster House

This is how a journalist summed up Gerry Adams's day in the witness box, back in April, when he was being cross-examined about the extent of his knowledge of the accusations against his brother Liam:

"The Sinn Fein president portrays himself as a credible, caring and compassionate public figure. The chasm between the myth of Gerry Adams and the reality couldn't have been clearer. In the witness box, he was in a position he loathes and now we can understand why. He wasn't dictating the terms of the debate.

"He was decisively pinned down. In a clinical courtroom, only hard facts are permitted. Waffle about the peace process, family privacy or expressions of phony sentiment isn't permitted. It was in these circumstances that we saw the absolute unravelling of Gerry Adams."

The defence barrister was Eilis McDermott, Northern Ireland's first female QC and, in the year 2010/11, the highest-paid legal aid barrister here, with fees of £770,035. She had also been paid almost £1.4m for her legal services during the Saville Inquiry, when she represented the family of Patrick Doherty.

She was born in Londonderry in 1950 and arrived at Queen's University in the autumn of 1968, just as the new era of student radicalism was beginning.

She was one of the earliest members of People's Democracy (PD) and was soon, along with people like Bernadette Devlin and Kevin Boyle, part of the leadership circle.

In November 1969, she attended a convention of the National Association for Irish Justice in New York, where IRA leader Cathal Goulding was the guest of honour.

While there, she visited the offices of the Black Panther movement and was made an honourary Panther. Around the same time, she set out her views on the future for Northern Ireland: "To conclude, then, let me say, that for me and my comrades in Belfast, socialism is the only thing that makes sense.

"Why should the people of Belfast put up with the conditions such as those in the ghetto areas of Belfast – and let me tell you, in case you didn't already know, that most of Belfast is a ghetto area.

"In the ghetto areas, 91% of houses do not have proper water facilities. They are without baths, they are without inside toilets. They are not humanly habitable, yet 91% of the population, Protestant and Catholic, live here.

"What sort of manner is the unionist government duping the Protestant population in, that it can actually think it has privileges in our corrupt state? This is something which we are trying to set out and change.

"The process will be long, it will be difficult, but we will try our best and if we succeed in any measure at all at least we will have done something. At least we will have progressed."

She continued her involvement with PD during her remaining years at Queen's, attending many of the rallies and protests and managed to pick up a public order conviction along the way.

After graduating in 1972 and then being called to the Bar in 1974, Ms McDermott seems to have opted for a ferociously private life.

Very little information exists about her and there are few photographs of her. She has three children and was previously married to the solicitor Oliver Kelly, who was briefly interned at the start of The Troubles.

Yet whatever her political views may have been – and, given her passion and articulacy, a political career was an obvious choice for her – she chose to concentrate on her legal career.

That said, in the mid-1990s, she became a patron of Democratic Dialogue, a new think-tank set up in the wake of the ceasefires to stimulate fresh political thinking.

It is a career that has brought her enormous success and respect and a number of high-profile cases – including her recent, successful defence of Lord Rana against accusations that he had assaulted his wife.

Yet it is the case involving the Adams brothers for which she will probably be best remembered: combining as it did a very potent and emotional cocktail of sex abuse and high politics.

Indeed, it's not over-egging the pudding to say that her cross-examination of Gerry Adams may have done more damage to his reputation and credibility than any of the other accusations which have been levelled against him down the years.

This was because he was in a witness box, under oath, and in no position to dodge the questions, or shunt the interrogation in another direction.

In one question after another, she pushed and kept on pushing, virtually forcing an admission from him that the dates and events tied up with the allegations involving his niece had somehow got jumbled with his political role.

It was a forensic, masterly performance, after which Adams clearly looked shell-shocked.

Q: I suggest to you that that didn't happen until Aine was 18?

A: Well, again, I don't have any specific recollection of this. You may, your Honour, recollect that the decade we're talking about (or even more than a decade) was an extremely busy time for me, in terms of my political work.

Q: And you give this as a reason – do you, Mr Adams – why you might not be able to remember some of these things; that you were busy with your political work?

A: No, I give it as an explanation. If you recall, these were the years in which cessations were arranged, in which talks were opened up, in which Good Friday Agreement was negotiated, and so on. I give it not as a reason, but as an explanation. And I also should note that the RUC at that time had ... I was advised had a statement and that the social services had been given an account.

Q: Mr Adams, have I asked you anything about the RUC just, or social services? We're coming to that in due course. And the Good Friday Agreement certainly wasn't being negotiated in 1987; was it?

A: The Good Friday Agreement wasn't, but the peace process was.

Q: The peace process had begun then; had it?

A: Well, the history of that is now well-known and you don't need me to give you through all of the dates involved.

Q: No, I'm not asking you about the history of the peace process, Mr Adams. I am asking you whether you know that, in fact, your niece remained in Belfast with her mother and other members of her family (according to her) until she was 18, which is five years after the 1987 meeting in Buncrana?

That couple of hours in court has, unlike any other case she has done, or is likely to do, propelled her into the legal equivalent of celebrity status.

That cross-examination will feature in every future biography of Adams and will be cited as one of the key factors in the diminution of his reputation outside (although it needs to be acknowledged that there is growing dissatisfaction inside the ranks, too) Sinn Fein circles.

She got to do what every single journalist, north and south of the border, would love to have done. It terms of courtroom moments, it doesn't rank as high as Edward Carson versus Oscar Wilde, but it will be remembered.

She has come a long way: from a socialist student protester, to Black Panther, to first female QC in Northern Ireland, to pillar of the legal establishment and now as close as it's possible to come to a household name. And yet we still know very little about her.

A number of people I spoke to wouldn't go on the record about her; while someone else, who described themselves as "reasonably close" to her, brushed off my questions with a "she really wouldn't want me talking about her".

If we want to get to know about her, then it looks like we'll need a proper witness box – and someone as good at her job as she is.

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