Rosemary Nelson, a lawyer and women human rights defender, was killed on 15 March 1999 in an explosion caused by a bomb attached to her car in Lurgan, Northern Ireland. The Red Hand Defenders, a loyalist armed group, claimed responsibility but no one has ever been convicted for involvement in Rosemary’s killing.
Rosemary gained prominence in the decade before her murder for her defence of individuals detained under emergency legislation or on suspicion of terrorism-related offences and was a passionate advocate of the principle of the rule of law. In her high-profile cases Rosemary represented leading Republicans, acted for the families of people whose deaths involved allegations of collusion between the authorities and loyalist paramilitaries, and represented the residents of Garvaghy Road.
In the years before her killing, she had reported harassment and intimidation, including sexual innuendos and a physical assault by members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC). She also suffered abuse from members of the Army and reported receiving anonymous verbal and written death threats. Human rights organizations monitoring the situation in Northern Ireland expressed concerns about such intimidation and threats, and urged the authorities to address them in the years leading up to her murder. The UN Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers issued an urgent appeal for her protection in the year before her death.
Rosemary became an internationally renowned human rights defender as a result of her work as a criminal defence solicitor in Northern Ireland. Her work on the frontline, defending human rights, informed domestic and international NGOs monitoring human rights violations in Northern Ireland. Her death was a tragic loss to the international human rights community and undermined the rule of law in Northern Ireland. The circumstances leading to Rosemary Nelson’s death were eerily reminiscent of those leading up to the 1989 killing of the human rights lawyer, Patrick Finucane, who was also threatened by members of the security forces before being killed by loyalist paramilitaries.
The Rosemary Nelson Inquiry opened in April 2005 and hearings were conducted in 2008 and 2009. In his 2004 report on Rosemary’s case, as part of the wider Collusion Inquiry, Judge Cory had recommended a specific public inquiry into Rosemary Nelson’s death and called on it to: “[determine] whether the failure of Government agencies to protect Rosemary Nelson, in light of the threats they were aware of, constituted collusion. If the Government knew Rosemary’s life was in danger, yet took no steps to ensure her safety, this could constitute collusion.” The subsequent inquiry, however, failed to adopt a definition of collusion at all; indeed, the issue was not addressed other than to acknowledge that there had been allegations of collusion.
The May 2011 inquiry report did roundly criticize state agencies for numerous omissions that may have contributed to her killing, but did not find any evidence of any act by a state agency that directly facilitated her murder. The Inquiry concluded there was a possibility of a rogue member or members of the RUC or the Army who may have assisted the perpetrators to target Rosemary. It also concluded that RUC officers made abusive and threatening comments about her to her clients, and publicly assaulted Rosemary in 1997, legitimizing her as a target; police intelligence was leaked, increasing the danger to her life; and various serious omissions by state agencies (the RUC and the NIO) rendered Rosemary at risk.
Some of the key omissions included: individual failures by RUC officers; RUC local and systemic management failures; the failure of the NIO to press the RUC on the issue of her protection; the failure of the NIO to address seriously threats to defence lawyers; the repeated documented inability of the RUC to distinguish Rosemary Nelson from her clients’ causes thereby legitimizing her as a target; and the failure by law enforcement and intelligence agencies to cooperate fully in the investigation into her death. The Inquiry report stated that “the combined effect of these omissions by the RUC and the NIO was that the state failed to take reasonable and proportionate steps to safeguard the life of Rosemary.
The UK government interpreted the Inquiry’s conclusions to have completely cleared the authorities of collusion in Rosemary Nelson’s killing. This selective interpretation is an example of the UK government glossing over factual findings of an inquiry, thus allowing it to evade responsibility for actions that, taken collectively, strongly indicated that collusion could have occurred. As Justice Cory had maintained in his 2004 report into Rosemary Nelson’s killing: “Carelessness or negligence might be found to constitute collusion either in the careless or negligent act or omission itself or taken together with other acts or omissions which would indicate a pattern of conduct.”
Judge Peter Cory recommended specific inquiries to be established by the UK or Irish governments into five cases, including Rosemary Nelson. Of those, four have now concluded, but no public inquiry has ever been established into one particular case: the killing of fellow human rights lawyer Patrick Finucane a decade prior to Rosemary Nelson’s murder, although the UK government has now accepted that collusion took place in his murder.