The head of British military intelligence in Ireland is among a string of top spooks to have been questioned by the inquiry into the murder of human rights lawyer Rosemary Nelson, it has been revealed.
As the public inquiry held its first hearings in Belfast details were released of the work that has already gone on behind the scenes.
The inquiry revealed the list of top Crown-force officials it has interviewed as it investigates allegations that the authorities may have had a role in Mrs Nelson’s murder.
Rory Phillips QC, counsel for the inquiry, said witness statements had been taken from:
- 30 RUC/PSNI police up to the rank of assistant chief constable
- 19 MI5 agents
- eight top British army intelligence officers
The inquiry revealed the list included the director and coordinator of intelligence in Ireland, the head of Special Branch and spooks from across the British Crown forces.
Mrs Nelson had been threatened by the RUC/PSNI prior to her death for her work. This included representing the nationalist Garvaghy Road Residents Association, which opposed the annual Orange Order march through the Catholic area in Portadown.
Mrs Nelson’s husband Paul, her mother and her brothers and sisters were present for the opening day of the inquiry in the Interpoint Centre in central Belfast.
They sat behind the rows of lawyers representing parties to the inquiry, including representatives of the RUC, British government, British Army and MI5.
The inquiry follows a lengthy police “investigation” which failed to convict anyone in connection with Mrs Nelson’s murder.
The 40-year-old lawyer was killed by a high-tech car bomb at her home in Lurgan, County Armagh, on March 15 1999. The unionist paramilitary group the Red Hand Defenders issued a claim of responsibility, although state collusion in the assassination has always been suspected.
The inquiry has confirmed that Jonathan Powell, chief of staff to the then British prime minister, Tony Blair, has also given a statement.
Mrs Nelson had told representatives of the US Congress and the United Nations that her life was being threatened by both the RUC and unionist paramilitaries.
Mr Phillips told the inquiry that the failure to bring justice in the case continued to cause controversy.
“At the time of her murder there was a perception, that has persisted to this day, that she was killed for her work,” Mr Phillips said.
However, Mr Phillips continued: “An important characteristic of a free democratic society governed according to law is the presence within it of lawyers who are willing and able to take up the cause of those charged with offences, however grave they may be and however repellent the nature of the conduct alleged and to represent them fearlessly and to the best of their ability, whatever society’s view of their clients.”
Mr Phillips drew comparisons with the murder in 1989 of Belfast defence lawyer Pat Finucane, considered to be one of the most heinous acts of collusion in the history of the conflict.
Mr Phillips said Mrs Nelson’s allegations of threats prior to her death and their airing on the world stage had set her case apart.
“Suffice to say at this point that the striking and possibly unique feature of her murder was that the fact of it, if not the manner of it, had apparently been so clearly foreshadowed, not least by her,” he said.
But he said there had been no examination of the collusion allegations until now.
Although the terms of the inquiry have been the subject of controversy -- particularly the restrictions on access to classified material and the lack of an international dimension -- Mrs Nelson’s brother Eunan Magee said his family now hoped the truth would emerge.
“The inquiry will be a difficult process for the family but there is some relief that this day has finally arrived,” he said.
“We just hope that the truth will come out at the end. We have nothing to fear from the truth and everyone can then make their own judgement on what happened to Rosemary.”
The inquiry is being led by a panel of three officials chaired by retired English High Court judge “Sir” Michael Morland.
His colleagues are Dame Valerie Strachan, former chair of Britain’s Board of Customs and Excise, and Sir Anthony Burden, former chief constable of South Wales Police.