Irish Legal Heritage: Rosemary Nelson

Rosemary Nelson
Rosemary Nelson

Twenty years ago today, on Monday 15 March 1999, human rights lawyer Rosemary Nelson was murdered by loyalist paramilitaries. A bomb had been attached to the underneath of her car, and detonated when she pressed the brakes as she reached the bottom of the road from her home as she drove to her office in Lurgan.

On the night of her death, the Red Hand Defenders claimed responsibility for the attack. However, it was suggested that such a group had neither the expertise nor resources to carry out such an attack on their own, and the opinion that the British security forces had been involved was echoed by many.

Rosemary represented both sides of the community in Northern Ireland, but some of her most high profile human rights cases made her a target for loyalist paramilitaries. The Rosemary Nelson Inquiry found that “members of the RUC made abusive and/or threatening remarks about Rosemary Nelson to her clients. This became publicly known and would have had the subsequent effect of legitimising her as a target in the eyes of Loyalist terrorists”.

Famously, Rosemary was the solicitor for the Garvaghy Road Residents’ Coalition. On 6 July 1997, when Rosemary approached the police lines in her capacity as a legal representative of the Resident’s Coalition, she was grabbed by an RUC officer and pulled into the middle of the police. Rosemary reported to the CAJ that one of the officers said “Rosemary you Fenian fucker”, spat in her face, and that the police pushed her around to the extent that she had bruises all over her arm, her right shoulder and her legs. The Inquiry concluded that Rosemary’s account of the incident was honest and truthful, that she had been abused and assaulted by RUC officers, and that the “perception of her within the RUC continued to affect police behaviour towards her thereafter”. The inquiry also reported that this had the effect of legitimising her as a target.

Less than six months before her death, in her statement before the International Operations and Human Rights Sub-committee of the House International Relations Committee Hearing on Human Rights in Northern Ireland, Rosemary reported that RUC officers had been able to indulge in systematic abuse against her, and that they were unable to distinguish her role as a professional lawyer “from the alleged crimes and causes” of her clients. Rosemary also stated that she had several death threats against her and members of her family (many of which she had documented), and that although she had complained about such threats she had no satisfactory response (included in the Pat Finucane Centre Report on Rosemary Nelson).

The inquiry into Rosemary’s death found that there was no evidence that the security forces directly facilitated her murder, but stated that the “possibility of a rogue member or members of the RUC or the Army in some way assisting the murderers to target Rosemary” could not be excluded. In addition to the multiple findings that the behaviour of the RUC had the effect of legitimising her as a target for loyalist paramilitaries, the inquiry also found that leaked intelligence increased the danger to Rosemary’s life, that omissions by the RUC and the Northern Ireland Office had rendered her more at risk and more vulnerable.

Rosemary was 40 years old when she died, leaving behind her husband and three young children. A graduate of Queen’s University Belfast, Rosemary had opened her practice in Lurgan in 1989 and dedicated her life to use her “considerable experience of the law to try to ensure that rights were translated into reality” (Pat Finucane Centre Report).

Nobody has ever been charged with Rosemary’s murder.

Seosamh Gráinséir

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