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Fourth Anniversary of the Murder of Human Rights Solicitor Rosemary Nelson

15. March 2003

On Saturday 15 March, is the fourth anniversary of the murder of human rights solicitor Rosemary Nelson. Rosemary was killed by a loyalist car bomb after receiving a number of death threats from members of the RUC. It was revealed today, on the eve of her anniversary, that 55 solicitors and barristers have been victims of intimidation, harassment and threats from RUC/PSNI Officersin 2001 and 2002. The figure was contained in a report from the Police Ombudsman.

Following is a series of relevant articles from the Irish News, and a statement from the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission calling for a public inquiry into Rosemary's murder.

Irish News 13/03/03

A former soldier and a police informant are among 10 suspects in the murder of solicitor Rosemary Nelson, the Irish News has learned. It is understood both men are serving jail terms for loyalist paramilitary activity unrelated to the case, but have been identified as suspects in the plot to kill the high-profile solicitor.

This weekend marks the fourth anniversary of the murder of the Lurgan mother-of-three.

The long-running investigation has pin-pointed eight to 10 suspects in a murder hunt which is now understood to have seen English detectives travel to Africa, Europe and the US in search of information. But despite an investigation believed to have cost in excess of £7 million, police have been unable to secure the evidence needed to bring the Lurgan solicitors killers to justice.

It has been confirmed, however, that the list of suspects includes a former soldier. The Co Armagh man was a serving member of the RIR at the time of the killing, but left the army two months after it. A Co Armagh loyalist, who was identified in a court case unrelated to Mrs Nelsons murder as being a police informant, has also been targeted by police investigating the solicitors case.

Despite the mens connections to the security forces, sources have privately played down the role of both individuals, claiming police have yet to identify the exact nature of their connection to the case. But the information raises fresh questions over a murder in which the allegations of security force collusion continue to linger.

Mrs Nelson (40) died in a car bomb attack launched by the loyalist Red Hand Defenders on March 15 1999. Prior to her death she was threatened by loyalists, but also alleged police officers interviewing some of her clients had said she would be killed.

Concerns for her safety were highlighted by human rights groups and were eventually probed by a senior figure from the United Nations who recommended urgent action by the British government. Mrs Nelson detailed her own fears when she addressed a hearing at the US congress in Washington, just months before she was killed.

Her death sparked international calls for an independent investigation, but it was controversially decided the murder would be probed by a team made-up of RUC officers and police staff drawn from Britain.

Deputy Chief Constable of Norfolk Colin Port stepped down as head of the investigation late last year. And despite police pledges that the hunt for the killers has continued, relatives of the murdered solicitor have expressed concerns the investigation is effectively over.

ON the day Rosemary Nelson was killed, her attackers visited her home not once, but twice. Police have built up a detailed picture of how the attack was carried out and while they privately concede that grey areas remain, this strange turn of events has been confirmed.

In the early hours of March 15 1999 the gang planted an under-car bomb below Mrs Nelsons silver BMW while it was parked outside her Lurgan home. They must have expected her to leave for work early that morning, for it has now emerged that when she did not, two of the gang drove back to her home to find out why the booby-trap device had not exploded.

When they saw Mrs Nelsons car still parked outside her house they drove away and waited.

It was not uncommon for Mrs Nelson to phone ahead to the staff in her Lurgan solicitors office, only to join them later. She left for work at around 12.30pm.

The mother-of-three had driven only yards from her home when the device beneath her car exploded. She died a little over two hours later in hospital.

Only a few years before her death, Rosemary Nelson was unknown outside her home town. She ran her own solicitors office in Lurgan, Co Armagh, and gained a reputation as an effective lawyer.

But by the mid-1990s she had taken on three clients whose cases eventually brought the 40-year-old to wider attention. Lurgan republican Colin Duffy was twice cleared of murder charges under her representation. In one case, the main prosecution witness was exposed as a loyalist paramilitary.

Mrs Nelson was also asked to represent the Garvaghy Road Residents Coalition and found herself drawn into the bitter Drumcree marching dispute. She later represented the family of Portadown Catholic Robert Hamill, who was kicked to death by a loyalist mob while police were parked nearby.

As these cases raised Mrs Nelsons profile, she began to receive threats from loyalists. She also claimed that police officers interviewing some of her clients had issued threats against her.

Her case attracted the attention of international human rights groups and was raised at the United Nations. The solicitors death came despite calls for her protection and international demands for an independent inquiry.

The authorities resisted pressure for the RUC to be barred from the murder hunt. The inquiry team, led by a senior English officer, comprised a mix of RUC staff and police drawn from Britain.

Deputy chief constable of Norfolk Colin Port, who led the police team, stepped down as head of the investigation three months ago. A successor has yet to be appointed, but police insist that the murder hunt is continuing.

But after a four-year probe that has cost in excess of £7 million, it is unclear if police are any closer to catching Mrs Nelsons killers.

Investigators have stressed that they went to unprecedented lengths to gather evidence against suspects, but the killers have yet to be brought to justice and the concerns of security force collusion in the murder linger on.

Mrs Nelson was in Donegal on the weekend before her death, but her car was parked outside her home from the early evening of Sunday March 14. She lived in a quiet residential area, not covered by CCTV.

It is now thought that two suspicious cars seen in the area around midnight are likely to have carried the gang that planted the bomb. These cars have never been located.

The bomb would have been attached to Mrs Nelsons car in seconds. It is now known that it contained 1lb of powergel explosives, with a triggering mechanism that included a mercury tilt-switch. Other such devices had fallen off the vehicles they were attached to, but the bomb which killed Mrs Nelson included a powerful magnet stolen from Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast.

The device was examined for features that might indicate the signatureof the bombmaker and similarities were found with two car bomb attacks launched by loyalists. In December 1996 Belfast republican Eddie Copeland suffered leg and arm injuries but escaped with his life when loyalists planted a similar booby-trap beneath his car.

In October of the following year, it is thought that the bomb-maker increased the amount of explosives used in the device. This was used to target Co Down man Glen Greer during a feud between the UVF and UFF. The Bangor man died as the explosion ripped through his car.

The Red Hand Defenders, who claimed responsibility for Mrs Nelsons murder, was seen as a flag of convenience used by a coalition of loyalists opposed to the peace process.

At the time, the sophistication of the device was thought to be beyond anything the grouping had access to. It was quickly established that the attack was carried out by members of the LVF, working with members of the larger loyalist paramilitary organisations.

The Irish News now understands that investigators have identified between eight and 10 suspects who they believe were involved in the bombing. These include three high profile loyalists who are known to the police and were highly active in the Portadown/Lurgan area around the time of Mrs Nelsons murder.

Former LVF leader Mark SwingerFulton is believed to have coordinated the attack on Mrs Nelson. He was in prison on the day of the murder, but he was granted parole in the days leading up to the killing and he is also thought to have contacted his accomplices from jail. Fulton, a close associate of the LVF founder Billy Wright, was found dead in his cell in Maghaberry prison in June last year. The authorities have concluded it was suicide.

Police are also believed to have identified a loyalist in his mid-forties, who has been connected with both the UDA and UVF, as the man they suspect built the bomb, but they have been unable to gather evidence against him.

The list of suspects also includes two men with links to the security forces. The first is in his early thirties and was a soldier in the RIR at the time of the killing, but left within two months of it.

The second is a Co Armagh-based loyalist who was identified in a court case, unrelated to the Nelson murder, as being a police informant.

The mens security links have fuelled the speculation of collusion in the killing, but it is understood that police have denied this is the case. They claim that the exact role of both men remains in doubt, while they portray the former soldier as a maverick who admired Billy Wright and was keen to help develop the capabilities of the LVF.

The remaining suspects are a mixture of well known loyalists and lesser known figures on the fringes of dissident loyalist activities. Police say they went to great lengths to gather evidence on these suspects.

Individuals were targeted for surveillance and undercover operations, with the aim of securing information that might pave the way for convictions.

This work may have helped police jail some of the suspects for other illegal activity, but it failed to unearth sufficient evidence to support charges in relation to Mrs Nelsons murder.

During the course of the investigation, the Rosemary Nelson team made 30 arrests, carried out 69 house searches, took 4,864 statements and recorded over 11,000 investigative tasks carried out by officers. This resulted in 17 people being charged in connection with illegal activity including serious paramilitary related crimes. None of these charges, however, related to the murder of Rosemary Nelson.

From the outset of the investigation there were concerns over its ability to get to the bottom of the allegations of security force collusion in the killing. At its height the Rosemary Nelson team included 150 police staff. They continue to insist that no evidence has been found to support the fears of collusion.

At the time of Mrs Nelsons killing, concerns were expressed over reportedly high levels of security force activity near her home in the days leading up to the attack. One observer has questioned the bombers surprising degree of self-confidence.

Mrs Nelson is known to have remarked upon the helicopter activity near her home on the night before her death in a telephone conversation with a close relative.

Police have claimed, however, that the activity levels were high for at least two weeks and say that it has now been accounted for. While investigators studied the security force movements in detail it is believed this process was complicated by the fact that very little of the helicopter activity was actually recorded.

Despite police claims that they have found no evidence of collusion, close observers of the case have identified areas of concern, which they say remain.

The inquiry team was urged to question the police officers accused of threatening the defence solicitor. But police argued that earlier probes found insufficient evidence to bring charges against these officers and, in the absence of new evidence, they saw no grounds for questioning them again.

In the wake of the murder, two weeks passed before Colin Port was named as the outside officer who would take over the inquiry. The murder and collusion investigation was, therefore, under way before any outside scrutiny of its day-to-day activities began.

While there is no suggestion that this hampered the murder hunt, it has undermined the independence and transparency that Mr Ports arrival was intended to stamp on the investigation. In addition, it has been claimed that a number of leaks to the media possibly alerted suspects.

Four years after the murder of Rosemary Nelson, her killers have yet to be prosecuted. But the history of the Troubles is dotted with similar human tragedies where the guilty have evaded arrest.

The unique element in Mrs Nelsons case is that a two-year campaign, which included concerns for her safety being raised by the international human rights community, failed to save her.

Four years after her murder, Rosemary Nelsons killers have yet to be brought to justice, while the allegations that she became a target for abuse by sections of the security forces, continue to fuel fears of collusion in her killing.

Observers argue that the Rosemary Nelson investigating team has made considerable progress in disrupting the operations of the LVF, but has so far failed in the job for which it was created.


Irish News 14/03/03

Her family sit around the kitchen table, sipping tea and swapping stories. They smile at happier memories, but minutes later they are close to tears.

"She was so funny, she had such a great sense of humour ... I remember, after it happened, I was just holding her hand ... None of us knew where we were that day, it was a total shock..."

For the last four years, media coverage of Rosemary Nelsons murder has seen her drift in and out of our lives, but she has never left theirs.

Her relatives have never spoken publicly about their loss, but today Rosemary Nelson's brother Eunan, and sisters Caitlin and Bernie, voice their familys concerns that despite a multi-million pound investigation, her killers have yet to be caught, and the allegations of security force collusion in the murder remain unresolved.

They are breaking a silence they have observed since March 15, 1999.

"I think something happened that day that should not have happened that should not have been allowed to happen," said Eunan. "And that's being kind. Thats being very diplomatic. A phone call could have saved Rosemarys life."

The high profile defence solicitor was killed near her Lurgan home in a car- bomb attack claimed by the loyalist Red Hand Defenders. But the sophistication of the booby-trap, and Mrs Nelson's claims of police intimidation, fuelled fears of a wider plot.

Her death prompted a political crisis, but her relatives saw only the loss of a loved one.

Rosemary was born into the Magee family, well known members of the community on Lurgans Shore Road. There were five daughters and two sons. She fell right in the middle. Her siblings remember a lively child who loved life and later a woman, who worked hard but who loved her holidays and her family and had a great sense of humour.

She was educated at Tannaghmore Primary School, close to her family home. Success at St Michaels Grammar was followed by a law degree at Queens University, Belfast.

Her sisters joke that she took up law because her mother told her to but it was her academic success and inquisitive mind that steered her in the direction of the legal profession. They say she was not political but rather politically aware. Current affairs and international news featured as prominently in a mind not confined to the north of Ireland.

She enjoyed a lifelong passion for Irish, with teenage summers in the gaelteacht areas of Co Donegal fuelling a fondness for the native tongue that she never lost. Her brother Eunan now teaches the language and he remembers how they teased other family members.

"When we didnt want anyone else to know what we were talking about, we would speak in Irish. And then get scolded!"

But her success at school came despite a difficult setback.

Rosemary was born with a strawberry birthmark on one side of her face. From the age of 10 she endured periods of 15 weeks at a time in a Scottish hospital receiving skin graft surgery that continued into her mid-teens.

The surgery left Rosemary with facial scars that loyalists would later use for propaganda purposes. Leaflets were printed which falsely attributed the scars to Rosemary being a former bomber, a falsehood which tragically derived from a young girls brave endurance of painful surgery.

"Even though she spent a lot of time in and out of hospital, she was still managing to get A grades",her older sister Bernie recalled.

Her family said that Rosemary also maintained her outgoing personality. This warmth, they said, was to prove a great asset in her professional life.

She worked for two legal firms before helping to set up an advice and health centre in a Lurgan housing estate. This specialised in offering help to vulnerable women, to the elderly and those eligible for state benefits. Her work also included marginalized groups such as the Travelling community. Her family complain that this area of her professional background is rarely, if ever, highlighted.

Rosemary graduated from university in 1981, and by 1989 had started her own legal firm in Lurgan. She was the first female solicitor to practice in the town and was soon employing others.

Her family say her work in the advice centre meant she was already well known as an effective solicitor, but also as a friendly and considerate person. Her business thrived.

"There were all types of people going to her",said her sister Caitlin. "There were a lot of separations, domestic disputes. Women who were in difficult situations. And she would have gone out of her way for people. She would not just treat them as clients."

"She would have done free work for people, went down to their houses." They confirm she also had both Catholic and Protestant clients despite working in what has historically been a divided town.

They recall a policeman who employed Rosemary to represent him when he separated from his wife. Caitlin said: "Rosemary asked him why he had come to her, and he said: Because you're the best."

Had Rosemary Nelson practiced as a solicitor in almost any other small town she would have continued to spend her career buying and selling homes, settling estates and representing clients who fell foul of the law for minor matters.

But based in the often tense mid-Ulster area, she was to find herself drawn into one of the most high profile paramilitary-linked court cases of the 1990s, and in the volatile Drumcree marching dispute.

By 1996 the small town solicitor had taken on a number of cases that were to propel her into the spotlight. She represented Lurgan republican Colin Duffy during the period when two sets of charges against him collapsed in circumstances which proved acutely embarrassing for the then RUC.

Rosemary was already well known in the Lurgan area, and when the Drumcree marching dispute began in neighbouring Portadown, she was contacted by Garvaghy Road residents spokesman Breandan Mac Cionnaith, who had grown up near her family in Lurgan.

She was also to represent the family of Portadown Catholic Robert Hamill killed in a brutal sectarian attack which echoed the racist murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence in London.

But Rosemarys family argue that when she was asked to take these cases on, no-one could have predicted how they would develop.

"Rosemary didn't think Drumcree would become as controversial as it did,"said Bernie. "No-one did. And I would say if you asked some of the politicians involved, they would say they never expected things to get so bad."

As the Drumcree, Duffy and Hamill cases rose to public prominence, Rosemary did not allow this to distract her from what her family say was a determination to continue to do her job.

"She certainly wasnt naive," said Eunan, "but maybe underestimated the way things would develop. I think she would then want to follow it to its logical end."

"And it was not a question of Rosemary wanting to get involved. Its a client coming and asking her to do a specific job for them. Basically then, the way she was, she would have attended to whatever crisis arose."

As the violent drama unfolded around Drumcree, Rosemarys sister Bernie recalls how family members pleaded with her to take care. They discussed how Rosemarys work was pushing her into the public eye.

"I remember saying to her, why would you go to that extent? And I remember her saying: How would you like it if your daughter went in to a shop one day and somebody accused her of shoplifting and no solicitor would defend her? She saw it as her job to do it. That is exactly the way Rosemary looked at it. People were in need."

Her family also remember a more pointed example of her belief in the rule of law.

Billy Wright, the notorious leader and founder of the Loyalist Volunteer Force (LVF), was one of the norths most feared paramilitaries when he was killed by republicans in the top security Maze prison in December 1997.

Wrights death sparked a loyalist backlash, resulting in a spate of sectarian killings.

At the time when Rosemary Nelson was representing the Garvaghy residents, loyalist paramilitaries, including the LVF, had killed Catholics to force the government to allow the march to go ahead.

But after Billy Wrights killing, Bernie recalls discussing his death with Rosemary.

"When he was murdered, that was a terrible time, all those murders that happened then as a result of that. We were talking about it as everyone was in the north of Ireland at that particular time.

"And Rosemary said: Well I dont care [who the individual was]. There was something wrong with what happened in the jail. Billy Wright should never have been murdered in a top security prison and that would definitely deserve an inquiry."

Bernie said her sister was never involved in the case, but then added: "If David Wright [Billy Wrights father] walked through her door and said: Would you represent me?She would have said: Yes. The same as she did with everybody else.

"That is an illustration of the way she had come to view things. The fact that she would be looking, no matter who the person was, for a proper investigation."

At the time Rosemary Nelson made these comments, there is evidence to suggest she had already become a potential target for the LVF.

She was already receiving anonymous threats from loyalists.

Her family say she was also upset by the threats allegedly made by police officers interviewing some of her clients.

Amid fears that negative police comments could damage her professional reputation, she went public with her concerns in an effort to defend herself.

In the autumn of 1998 she travelled to Washington to address a fact-finding hearing of the US congress. She also met a UN investigator probing the longstanding allegations of police intimidation of defence lawyers in Northern Ireland.

Bernie recalls discussing the fear of loyalist attacks with her sister.

"On one occasion Rosemary expressed hopes that, surely, she could never actually become a target, saying: But I am female, and I am a mother, and I act for everybody."

Bernie explained: "She didnt see her work as a crusade. Basically it came down to Rosemary doing her job and doing the best she could with the travellers, with the poor woman whose husband had beat her up on Friday night, with the Garvaghy Road with everybody."

Bernie lived close to her sister and she heard the explosion that claimed her life.

It was around 12:40pm when Rosemary drove away from her house and stopped at the junction opposite Tannaghmore Primary School where her daughter was a pupil.

As she came to a stop, the mercury tilt switch triggered the device planted beneath her silver BMW car.

The blast ripped up through the floor of the vehicle. Rosemary Nelson, small and slightly built, never stood a chance.

Bernie said: "I was at home for lunch. People ran to the house, and then I ran straight down [to the car]."

The memory brings her close to tears, and she is unable to speak.

Her sister Caitlin, added: "Bernie was holding her hand and telling Rosemary to fight, telling her it was the biggest fight she would ever have."

Rosemary suffered serious leg injuries. She was rushed to hospital, but died in the operating theatre two hours later.

The hours and days that followed are remembered only in snapshots. Disjointed memories, blurred by tears.

Bernie spoke to her sister on the phone the night before the attack, and remembers Rosemary commenting on the helicopter activity near her home. Other people in the area would later characterise the security presence prior to the attack as being unusually high.

The fact that this did not deter the bombers was just one point of concern raised in the whirlwind of argument and counter-argument that followed the murder.

Fears of security force collusion were heightened by the solicitors allegations of police intimidation.

An RUC team had opened an internal inquiry into the claims, but complaints at how this was handled saw it pulled off the case and replaced by investigators from the Metropolitan Police.

For all these reasons the murder sparked calls for an immediate inquiry and an RUC-freeinvestigation.

By this time, the future of the RUC was being considered by a commission formed under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement and chaired by former governor of Hong Kong Chris Patten.

Northern Irelands policing establishment resisted calls for it to be frozen out of the murder hunt and it was announced that the investigating team would include the RUC, but be led by a senior English officer.

Rosemarys relatives initially demanded an impartial inquiry, but were eventually left with little option but to back the investigation led by Deputy Chief Constable of Norfolk Colin Port.

He met the family and remained in regular contact. Meeting followed meeting. Press reports floated snippets of news a suspect fleeing here, a piece of evidence tracked to there.

The Rosemary Nelson team did make arrests. A number of loyalists were charged with offences completely unrelated to the case. No-one has ever been charged in connection with Rosemarys murder.

The family began to fear that the issue was falling out of the spotlight. By the summer of last year, while avoiding any public comment, they began to privately express concerns to the investigating team and to senior political figures, including the then Secretary of State John Reid.

Since then, Colin Port has withdrawn from the investigation. His successor has yet to be appointed, but police claim the murder hunt is continuing.

The bereaved relatives said that on a number of occasions, they were told police hoped the investigation was about to make progress. But four years later, they feel they are no nearer the truth.

"We never wanted anyone to use Rosemarys name for their own ends",said Caitlin. "We did not want this to become a green issue."

"It's a justice issue."

Eunan added: "But the investigation has polarised political opinion. What do unionists see? They see X amount of pounds poured into an investigation that has got us nowhere."

"They are not going to show any sort of support for an inquiry now, but initially there was an outcry."

While an estimated £7 million has been spent on the investigation, Eunan asked: "But to whose benefit? It did not benefit us. We feel let down. Very let down."

"And without being cruel, Rosemarys death is old news now. Youre not going to get the sort of support you could have got at the time for an inquiry."

They insist that their demand for a fully independent judicial inquiry remains as strong as ever.

"Rosemary who believed in justice deserves justice herself",said Bernie. "That is the bottom line. If it had been one of us, our Rosemary would have left no stone unturned."

The British and Irish governments have appointed retired Canadian supreme court judge Peter Cory to examine Mrs Nelsons case as well as five other controversial murders, with a view to recommending inquiries in all or some of the cases.

To Rosemary Nelsons family, however, she remains more than just a case.

Bernie said: "Every Christmas since Rosemary died, there are women who have given my mother remembrance cards. And they are always just signed, To Rosemary."

She reflects on these kind gestures."You know what",she added, "We don't even know what Rosemary did for them."

PRESS STATEMENT - Friday 14 March 2003


Tomorrow - 15 March 2003 - will be the fourth anniversary of the murder of Rosemary Nelson. The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission regrets very much that the extensive police inquires conducted so far have not yet resulted in any person being charged with that murder. In the Commission's view this makes a public inquiry into the killing all the more necessary and urgent.

Earlier this week the Commission met with Judge Peter Cory, the retired Canadian judge who was appointed last year to carry out a review of several controversial killings in Northern Ireland. His task is to make recommendations as to whether pubic inquiries should be held into any of the killings.

The Commission learned from Judge Cory what progress he has been able to make to date and it provided him with information which the Commission itself has collected on some of the cases. The Commission stressed, however, that on the back of its own extensive review, it had already come to the conclusion (announced last year) that independent international public judicial inquiries are required in relation to the murders of Patrick Finucane in 1989, Billy Wright in 1997 and Rosemary Nelson in 1999.

The Chief Commissioner of the Human Rights Commission, Professor Brice Dickson, said: "We are all keen to hear later this year what Judge Cory concludes in relation to the six incidents he is investigating and we are sure he is being as thorough as he can be. But with respect to three of the cases the Commission is already sufficiently convinced of the need for a public inquiry."

The PFC's 1999 report into the murder of Rosemary Nelson can be viewed at the website of the Pat Finucane Centre read more >>