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Peter Ward: ‘In a democracy, you are entitled to know something about the laws that govern you’

Lawyer Peter Ward reflects on his 40 years of involvement with Free Legal Aid Centres (Flac)

Peter Ward was among a group of pro-divorce campaigners who were told to “go away, you wife-swopping Sodomites” at the count for the 1995 referendum that saw the Irish public back divorce.

“If only we had that much fun on the campaign,” he quipped in reply to an irate anti-divorce campaigner, Úna Bean Mhic Mhathúna. It was the first referendum where Ward was on the winning side.

Change, he says, is neither easy nor quick: “Give me someone who will deliver at a particular level any day over the person who promises at a higher level they will deliver. You can deliver on a more modest agenda and build on that.”

Ward should know. As a 20-year-old law student in UCD in 1982, he was encouraged by fellow student Eilis Barry, now the chief executive of Flac, to volunteer in its fledgling clinics.


Since then, Flac has been involved in numerous landmark cases, including the campaign for equal treatment for married women in social welfare and gender recognition rights for transgender woman, Lydia Foy.

Civil legal aid was introduced in the 1980s but was very limited. Family law services had started in the 1970s but the civil legal aid scheme in the 1980s, as now, did not cover social welfare, housing, debt or employment law.

“We had a little office on North Earl Street with a phone and typewriter and took control of the service from there,” says Ward, recalling the efforts to expand Flac’s services.

Today, Flac has a Dublin office, a staff of 30 and a budget of €1.5 million, although it ran a deficit last year and depends on “vital” support from the Law Society and Bar Council.

Ward is worried about the “massive under-resourcing” of the Legal Aid Board and stresses the ongoing civil legal aid review is “hugely important” if improvements are to be made.

If you’re going to stay in this country and you want to be part of change, you’d better roll up your sleeves and be ready to do some work, it’s not going to be easy and it’s not going to be quick

Meanwhile, he is concerned about proposals to restrict the right to judicial review, an “absolute bulwark” of access to justice, and a “hugely important” mechanism for holding the State and public bodies to account.

“To make it [review] more difficult, to create more barriers requires it to be absolutely justified in a way that it has not,” he says. He accepts there are issues over delays in finalising judicial reviews but says that can be addressed by appropriate timelines.

“I got involved in Flac on the basis of a not-too-controversial belief that if you live in a democracy, you are entitled to know something about the laws that govern you. If you have a problem, you should be entitled to basic information and advice.

“Those working in Flac for any length of time realise there is economic as well as social inequality here, and most people seeking Flac’s services are suffering inequality or poverty.”

In the 1980s, UCD students learned from northern students studying in Dublin of the “utterly inspiring” work of the Belfast Law Centre which gave independent free legal services to both communities in the North during “extremely grim” days.

Born and raised in Navan, Co Meath, Ward says his family “were not especially radical but I had quite a liberal upbringing; we were allowed to express our own views with no fear of repercussions”.

Being a pro-choice canvasser in the 1983 anti-abortion referendum was difficult, where “people were extremely passionate and tempers were likely to get frayed very quickly”.

“There was quite a level of hostility,” says Ward. That referendum resulted in the Eighth Amendment, which was followed by another loss for his side in the first divorce referendum in 1986.

That 1986 campaign offered lessons for liberal campaigners. Early polls had suggested the pro-divorce side would win, but the campaign quickly revealed gaps in safeguards for women and children, and the family farm.

People needed to be convinced, and were not.

The defeat convinced Ward and others of two things: firstly, how powerful the forces of conservatism were, and, secondly, that those pursuing an equality agenda had to convince the middle ground if they were to win.

“The lesson I learned was that, if you’re going to stay in this country and you want to be part of change, you’d better roll up your sleeves and be ready to do some work, it’s not going to be easy and it’s not going to be quick.”

He and fellow equality campaigners were better prepared for the second divorce referendum of 1995, where Ward’s rebuttal of retired High Court judge, Rory O’Hanlon’s arguments on RTÉ’s Questions and Answers saw him become “the referendum darling”, in the words of barrister Catherine Forde.

In meetings around the country, Ward heard concerns about the financial and social consequences of divorce and noted heavy anti-divorce advertising was not being adequately combated by the pro-divorce campaign.

Infamously, one anti-divorce poster bore the memorable slogan: “Hello Divorce, Bye Bye Daddy.” In one public meeting in a midlands town, the local parish priest who had organised the meeting “hated the fact I was from Navan”.

“He wanted me to be the Dublin liberal coming down to talk to people in the country, it was very inconvenient I was not that,” adding that it convinced him of the need to be prepared and to campaign outside of Dublin.

Most importantly, it showed the need “never to be complacent”, underlined by the fact that 50.28 per cent voted in favour and 49.79 per cent against.

The result marked a turning point: “It wasn’t, of course, just about divorce, it was whether we were going to have a more equal, more inclusive society, one that was going to be more accepting of diversity, of diverse family types.”

Ward was the Labour Party’s spokesman in the 2002 referendum which helped to defeat the government-sponsored referendum that would have blocked a threat of suicide being grounds for abortion, following the Supreme Court’s X case decision.

“There were a lot more female voices prepared to speak up at that stage about their experiences and that paved the way for a much more open discussion on those matters through the 2000s and later referenda.”

Equally, enough people simply stayed in Ireland, rather than emigrating as so many had before to demand progress, says Ward, who baulks at the phrase “liberal agenda”, preferring “the equality agenda”.

More recent referendums on marriage equality and repeal of the Eighth Amendment happened in “a very different Ireland”, says Ward. He was on the strategic advisory committee for both and organised “Lawyers for Yes”.

Coalitions must be formed by campaigners around a clear goal, he cautions: “You have to be ready for arguments about unintended consequences, damage to society. You have to have a comprehensive response to that.”

There is a great advantage in having a Constitution that can be changed, he says. “That gives us great ownership of it, it is incredibly healthy, people feel, for all the ills about government, etc, we can all as a people change this fundamental document by which we live.

“Anyone who was on the Yes side could see, at the time of the results of the Repeal and Marriage Equality referendums, how psychologically important it is to feel all that positivity and connection and ownership.”

Campaigners must unite, not divide: “That’s what teams led by Gráinne Healy and Brian Sheehan in Marriage Equality and by Ailbhe Smyth, Gráinne Healy and Órla O’Connor in Repeal managed to do so magnificently.”

He is modest about his own role, but, in one of many tributes to Ward when he stood down as chairperson of Flac, Smyth said Ward is owed a huge debt: “Peter was, quite simply, a rock. He seemed to be endlessly available as we struggled with a host of knotty problems.”

Ward, an experienced senior counsel, believes a “conservative” Supreme Court is among the reasons it has proved difficult to advance personal rights by taking cases on public interest grounds.

The education system protects privilege and reinforces disadvantage and that feeds into professions like the legal profession

“The truth is, the Supreme Court we have, and have had, is quite conservative, and there is no guarantee of success when you start out on a major piece of litigation that it will change the law.

“In areas such as constitutional rights and employment, social welfare, housing, the jurisprudence over the last period of time has been conservative. That is not to say there have not been liberal judgments given in the superior courts, or the Supreme Court, but more often than not they are in the minority and have been outvoted by a conservative majority.”

Despite that, Ward stresses there have been “excellent” appointments to the courts here and the Irish judiciary is “robustly independent” at a time when independent judiciaries are facing challenge elsewhere in the world.

However, he is concerned about the “narrowness” of proposed new judicial appointment rules, and believes that greater diversity among both judges and top practising lawyers will come only if the State’s education system is overhauled.

“The education system protects privilege and reinforces disadvantage and that feeds into professions like the legal profession and it requires pretty targeted reform to change that.”

A housing referendum may be the next campaign, but it will be “very different” because it will be a move “into the realm of the economic”, he says. A referendum, he cautions, is not the solution to the housing crisis but would be an important articulation of the views of Irish society on the housing crisis.

Hard political choices will have to be made and people will have to balance their attitudes to private property rights with pressing social need, he says.

The Constitution, he believes, can accommodate a right to housing, and an appropriately worded referendum can afford the Government and the Oireachtas freedom to legislate without being “hobbled” by arguments about the extent of property rights.

“The simple fact is the housing crisis demands it. It is not sustainable for us to have our young people and older people unable to secure adequate housing.”