Irish Republican News · March 18, 2005
[Irish Republican News]

[Irish Republican News]
Rosemary Nelson and the Garvaghy Road

Rosemary Nelson was an internationally known and respected human rights lawyer in the North of Ireland. She frequently represented suspects detained for questioning about politically motivated offences. Most of her clients were arrested under emergency laws and held in specially designed holding centres, and were often interviewed without access to a lawyer.

One of a small number of solicitors brave enough to take up such sensitive cases, she was frequently the target of harassment, death threats and intimidation. Rosemary’s life had been threatened by members of the RUC police on a number of occasions, primarily via her clients.

On the night of 14th March 1999, an explosive device was placed under Rosemary’s car. The bomb exploded as the 40-year-old mother of three braked at the bottom of the street where she lived. The bomb tore her legs off and ripped through her abdomen. Her 8-year-old daughter, Sarah, was on lunch break in her school yard, less than 50 yards away.

Rosemary would live two hours longer. The struggle for justice in the case, in which Crown force collusion with paramilitaries is suspected, is still ongoing.

The following article by Robbie McVeigh recalls Rosemary from the point of view of the people she worked for in the nationalist enclave of the Garvaghy Road in Portadown who opposed the annual sectarian march by the Protestant Orange Order.

Rosemary Nelson was an ordinary lawyer serving all sides of the community. We hear this constantly and it is, in part, true. But she was also an extraordinary lawyer. This was most obvious in her relationship with the people of the Garvaghy Road. She was competent and professional in her defence of human rights, in her belief that the law and the police should work for people rather than against them. But she was also emotionally committed to the cause of justice - it was not something than she did between 9 am and 5pm and then left behind. She cared deeply and passionately about the rights of her clients. She didn’t have to stay out night after night on the Garvaghy Road when the area was under siege. She didn’t have to run the gauntlet of racist, sexist and sectarian abuse she received for her work. She didn’t have to travel with the Garvaghy Road Residents Coalition to meet with Tony Blair. She didn’t have to sit through endless sessions with the Parades Commission. But she did all these things. Despite the belief of some legal professionals who insist that all lawyers should be dispassionate and neutral, this did not make her a bad lawyer - it made her a great lawyer.

One of the more illuminating events I attended in the work of the Rosemary Nelson Campaign was an event that brought together the great and the good from the fields of law and politics. These people were all effusive in their tributes to Rosemary. They had, however, also insisted that the local Friends of Garvaghy Road would not be allowed to publicise a forthcoming event - since, presumably, this would lower the tone of the evening. The only solace in this was the thought of what Rosemary would have made of it. She had been elevated - posthumously of course - into the halls of the great and the good. But her clients, those she had fought for as a remarkably committed human rights defender, were still outside the door.

Rosemary’s murder was an attack upon human rights and equality and justice. It impacted most brutally and cruelly, of course, on her family - her children, her husband, her mother and father, her brothers and sisters. It impacted on the entire human rights community around the world. It also impacted deeply on the Catholic/Nationalist community across the north of Ireland. But it had a very specific impact on the people of the Garvaghy Road. In the most brutal manner, it reminded that community of its vulnerability. It took away one of its most able defenders; it removed ‘the voice of the voiceless’. We all have to keep struggling for justice because that is what Rosemary herself would have done. We also have to reflect and accept, however, that she cannot be replaced - because she was irreplaceable. This truth is more evident on the Garvaghy Road than anywhere else - there she was not just a lawyer but also a counsellor and a friend.

I had the privilege of attending the planting of trees in memory of Rosemary in the Bunscoil on the Garvaghy Road in April 2000. Paul Nelson and the children of the Bunscoil led the ceremony. There could be no more appropriate way to remember Rosemary. She loved the Irish language with the same passion that she brought to all aspects of her life. She had done much work to support the school in its early days. It also seemed more appropriate to have this living, growing tribute to her rather than a more conventional artefact. It made tangible the notion that ‘our revenge is the laughter of our children’. It also made real and physical the link between Rosemary and the people of the Garvaghy Road. Her brutal murder had already ensured that the spirit of Rosemary Nelson and of the Garvaghy Road would always be intertwined. They are now locked together into the story of the struggle for human rights and equality in Portadown - a story that is both tragic and inspiring. There will be no justice for Rosemary Nelson without justice for the people of the Garvaghy Road; there will be no justice for the people of Garvaghy Road without justice for Rosemary Nelson.

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© 2005 Irish Republican News