Who killed Rosemary Nelson?



North Armagh-based human rights lawyer Rosemary Nelson was assassinated 20 years ago this week in an attack in which high-level collusion is still suspected. A report by Beatrix Campbell on the smears and disinformation which continued long after her death. (for the Guardian)


The public inquiry into the assassination two decades ago of the human rights lawyer Rosemary Nelson was about to open its doors in a blank Belfast office block to witnesses when a new and eccentric story began to circulate. It abandoned the theory accepted by virtually everyone close to the case - that Nelson’s killers were probably a Belfast bomb-maker and veteran mid-Ulster loyalists, including people who had been British agents and a serving member of the British Army. Instead, the inquiry, chaired by Sir Michael Morland, was encouraged to believe that one of Nelson’s own clients, a former IRA prisoner called Colin Duffy, had in fact been responsible.

People who had campaigned for the inquiry began to wonder whether they’d made a mistake - was Nelson herself going to be impugned for the company she kept, the clients she represented in several high-profile cases that allegedly attracted police death threats? Was she going to be blamed for her own death?

This new theory - promoted by a high-level police source - offered an attractive alternative to collusion. The inquiry seemed obsessed by Nelson’s motives and morals. But by the time the inquiry closed - the focus had shifted away from the rogue republican killer and on to a police culture which could have made her murderers feel safe to kill.

Everybody knew Nelson’s life was at risk long before a bomb exploded under her car in 1998. She had had many death threats, but had been refused police protection. She was murdered a week before the publication of a report into allegations that police officers had told her clients she’d soon be dead.

What no one had known, however, was that while the RUC itself was under scrutiny, special branch, MI5 and the security service had been spying on her. Between 1994-1998 security reports on Nelson’s private and public life accelerated until, in the summer of 1998, an application for a warrant to put a bugging device in her property went to Mo Mowlam, then Northern Ireland secretary. It troubled Mowlam, but she sanctioned it.

Nelson, it appeared, was perceived as an enemy of the state rather than a citizen entitled to its protection. The evidence has stunned the three previous inquiries - costing millions of pounds - into alleged collusion in Nelson’s killing. They had all been told lies, that no intelligence file or files exist on Nelson.

“That was an untruth,” says a furious officer close to the murder investigation headed by Colin Port, now chief constable of Avon and Somerset police.

During her inquiry into complaints that the state had failed to act on death threats, Nuala O’Loan, Northern Ireland’s first police ombudsman, asked for intelligence files on Nelson. She had “absolutely no doubt” that they never saw those files.

In 2003, in his report into emblematic cases, Peter Cory, a retired Canadian supreme court judge, concluded that there was prima facie evidence of collusion. He asked, but was given no “documents pertaining to the request for a warrant or the intelligence file on Rosemary Nelson”.

Nelson was one of scores of lawyers in Northern Ireland who endured police harassment but, according to Rory Phillips, counsel to the current inquiry, none had transformed that occupational hazard into a protest. Nelson, “unusually if not uniquely” lodged formal complaints, taking her case to the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC), the UN and the US, and encouraging her clients to do the same.

By the summer of 1998 Nelson was already a hate figure as a result of her involvement in three cases: Duffy’s; that of Robert Hamill, a Catholic kicked to death by loyalists while RUC officers watched; and her work as legal adviser to the Garvaghy Road Residents’ Association which opposed the Orangemen’s annual Drumcree march.

Then the security services went on the offensive. On 10 July 1998, the IPCC had warned Mowlam that the RUC’s own inquiry into its officers’ alleged death threats against her was unsatisfactory. This was unprecedented - Chief Constable Ronnie Flanagan was incandescent.

Special branch drafted the warrant to install a bugging device. In a bullish testimony, the assistant chief constable, Chris Albiston claimed that Nelson fabricated IRA alibis, worked to a paramilitary agenda, and used her position to gather evidence about RUC officers. However, Phillips noted that the RUC had provided no evidence to all this.

By the end of July the security services were warned of dire risks attached to the warrant: there would have been a backlash if it ever got out that special branch was spying on Nelson while it was accused of threatening her. And Mowlam’s approval of this breach of lawyer-client confidentiality could damage her position in the peace process.

What was Chief Constable Flanagan’s role? During the Drumcree crisis, he described Nelson as an “immoral woman”, David Watkins, the Northern Ireland Office director of policing and security told the inquiry. Flanagan denied this. Indeed he denied knowing - or believing - that Nelson was anything other than a lawyer doing her job, until he was confronted by the warrant. His denials have confounded many observers, “either he didn’t know what special branch was doing, or he is lying,” commented Martin O’Brien, former director of CAJ, Northern Ireland’s leading human rights organisation, “and neither of those options is palatable”. Why, he wondered, was all this coming out now?

A clue comes from Phillips’ closing speech to the tribunal. In summer 1998 “arguably the most important moments in the chronology” converged, Phillips said. The police claimed their real target was her republican clients, yet the “focus is entirely on Rosemary Nelson”.

Phillips ventured that the intelligence revealed a police “attitude that was all of a piece”: Nelson was “someone over whom it would not be worth taking any great trouble”. Despite years of surveillance there was no intelligence on the threats against her. Working with the RUC felt like “wading through treacle while treading on eggshells” Port told the inquiry.

Though much evidence about the suspects was in camera, Phillips drew attention to the security ‘Operation Fagotto’ around Nelson’s home the weekend before her death. It transmitted messages that her car was parked outside. Why? Loyalists were sighted before and after her death - but not followed up. Why?

There has always been an eerie code of silence about Nelson’s death. Despite Colin Port’s “outstanding” stings, said Phillips, the suspects had not spoken. But they had consistently uttered one mantra: “It was the government that did it.”

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