Northern Ireland

Bombers thought they could get away with murder

Image caption Threat sent to Mrs Nelson in June 1998

How and why did Rosemary Nelson die following a car bomb attack in March 1999?

The Rosemary Nelson report makes sober reading for one simple reason. Although it finds there was no state collusion in the car bomb that took her life in 1999, the subtext is that those who planted it thought, quite literally, they could get away with murder.

Mrs Nelson was one of Northern Ireland's best known solicitors. Her supporters saw her as a fearless human rights campaigner, taking the case of nationalists beyond Lurgan, lobbying Downing Street and Washington.

She was also a woman whom loyalist paramilitaries wanted dead. And given they had already killed Pat Finucane, another lawyer, the credibility of the threat was hardly in doubt.

Sir Michael Morland and the other inquiry panel members make clear that the state failed to take reasonable steps to protect her in the face of that growing threat to her life.

Rosemary Nelson's death came during a very dark period of the peace process.

The previous summer had seen Northern Ireland rocked by sectarian tensions over the Drumcree Orange Order parade in Portadown, the murder of three little Catholic boys and the massive Omagh bomb planted by dissident republicans.

The political power-sharing agreement had been signed - but there was no certainty it could work.

So as politicians attempted to secure the deal, Mrs Nelson was one of the key figures among the communities at the frontline of sectarian tensions. She represented the nationalist residents of the Garvaghy Road in Portadown who opposed the Drumcree parade's route through their area. She also had a string of clients accused of republican paramilitary violence.

One of those was Colin Duffy, whom she represented when he was accused of the murder of two police officers.

What emerges in the report is that Nelson's legal work made her enemies - and those enemies were forming their views on vague intelligence from inside the Royal Ulster Constabulary's Special Branch and loyalist rumours on the streets.

Some RUC Special Branch officers had become convinced that Rosemary Nelson was not "any other solicitor" and that her association with Colin Duffy went beyond the normal lawyer-client relationship.

Some officers believed they were having an affair - and many more believed she was actively assisting the Provisional IRA.

At the Special Branch (SB) regional headquarters in Portadown, she was considered to be a "PIRA personality". One Special Branch chief told the inquiry: "The dogs on the street knew that Mrs Nelson was sympathetic to PIRA."

Rosemary Nelson publicly repudiated claims that she was in league with the IRA.

But her protestations did not stop rumours.

"We observed that among SB officers who gave evidence to the inquiry there was an unquestioning acceptance of the truth of the intelligence reports," says the report.

"Officers at every level… regarded Rosemary Nelson as an active supporter of PIRA."

Image caption Rosemary Nelson represented several high profile clients from her office in Lurgan

Critically, the report finds, those intelligence assessments did not stay on secret systems.

"It seems to us likely that the view fixed in SB that there was a relationship between Rosemary Nelson and Colin Duffy spilled into other sections of the force, at least in South Region," says the report. "Intelligence concerning Rosemary Nelson's supposed links with PIRA also spilled beyond SB."

Given that she was already a hate figure for many loyalists, these leaks "increased the danger to Rosemary Nelson's life".

In one 1997 incident, one of her clients said a police officer said: "She (Nelson) won't be here that long - she will be dead." Another client accused officers of calling her a "terrorist with a deformed face".

Trevor McKeown, a loyalist convicted of killing an 18-year-old Catholic woman, gave a statement, saying that two RUC officers had asked him why he had not shot Mrs Nelson instead.

McKeown's claim first emerged in a News of the World story, six years after the alleged comments. The inquiry found it could not dismiss his allegations as a media tale because they accurately reflected the views of CID officers.

What the report makes clear is RUC officers who publicly abused her, or who threatened her indirectly with remarks to her clients, legitimised her as a target in the eyes of loyalist gunmen.

She received anonymous death threats and a bullet through the post.

And in 1998, a leaflet circulating in Portadown reported loyalists cheering news of her death. The leaflet falsely claimed that her facial scars, caused by a birthmark operation, were caused by her involvement in a botched IRA bomb attack.

And it is this history of threats that led the inquiry to conclude that the state failed to protect Rosemary Nelson.

It accuses the RUC of failing to stop its officers abusing her and says there was a "corporate failure" to warn her how serious the situation had become. Furthermore, the NIO should have pressured police chiefs to make sure the solicitor was safe, says the report.

"The combined effect of these omissions … was that the state failed to take reasonable and proportionate steps to safeguard the life of Rosemary Nelson.

"If Rosemary Nelson had been given advice [and assuming she took it] the risk to her life and her vulnerability would have reduced."

Instead, she got into her car on 15 March 1999 and suffered fatal injuries from the bomb that subsequently exploded.

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