Inquiry due to report on death of solicitor killed for her work

Murdered Lurgan solicitor Rosemary Nelson

Murdered Lurgan solicitor Rosemary Nelson

It is bitterly ironic that, had she been alive, Rosemary Nelson would have in all probability been preparing today for the outcome of the public inquiry into her own killing.

The mother-of-three had become one of the most high profile nationalist solicitors in Northern Ireland in the late 1990s, representing Garvaghy Road residents during the Drumcree dispute, the family of Catholic man Robert Hamill who was kicked to death in Portadown town centre in May 1997 and high profile republicans, such as Colin Duffy.

Two months before her death she had led a delegation of Garvaghy Road residents to meet then British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

However Mrs Nelson’s high profile work made her a hate figure within loyalism, but more importantly also to many within the RUC.

Up to a dozen of Mrs Nelson’s clients reported that RUC officers had boasted during questioning in Gough Barracks that she would be killed.

She had complained that one police officer had spat in her face while another had hit her with a baton during a street protest.

She had also complained of receiving loyalist death threats, including phone calls to her home and being intimidated while shopping with her children.

The threats were brought to the attention of the RUC by local and international human rights groups, including then UN Special Rapporteur Dr Param Cumaraswamy.

In June 2008, Rory Phillips QC, told the opening of the inquiry that Mrs Nelson’s death had been made even more abhorrent, because it had been carried out solely because of her work as a defence solicitor.

“At the time of her murder there was a perception – that has persisted to this day, that she was killed for her work,” he said.

“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, who was lead counsel for the inquiry, said a key part of the inquiry’s investigations would centre on the fact that so many complaints highlighting the threats against Mrs Nelson had been made to those in authority, yet they did not appear to have been acted upon.

“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.

“Unsurprisingly therefore after her murder there were many who wanted to know whether more could have been done to protect her and whether her murder could have been prevented.

“Importantly, however, the theories, the claims and counter claims which have surrounded the murder have had no public airing until now.”

Rosemary Nelson's brothers Eunan and Tony Magee address reporters at the inquiry

Rosemary Nelson's brothers Eunan and Tony Magee address reporters at the inquiry

Mrs Nelson’s family had campaigned since her death for a public inquiry.

The British government agreed to an inquiry following a report by retired Canadian judge Peter Cory who said he had found evidence of collusion in the events surrounding the solicitor’s murder.

A key conclusion of the inquiry’s findings today will be to determine whether the threats against Mrs Nelson were properly dealt with or were ignored.

The 40 year-old was fatally wounded as she drove her car away from her home in Lurgan at 12.40pm on March 15, 1999.

An under car booby trap bomb fitted with a mercury tilt switch exploded underneath her BMW car as she braked at a junction opposite Tannaghmore Primary School, where her daughter was a pupil.

Friends and relatives ran to Mrs Nelson’s aid.

One of her sisters held her hand as she lay seriously wounded in the wreckage.

She died a few hours later.

The Red Hand Defenders, a covername for the LVF, claimed responsibility for the murder.

Thousands attend Rosemary Nelson's funeral in March 1999

Thousands attend Rosemary Nelson's funeral in March 1999

Despite the initial outrage and claims of collusion sparked by the killing, the authorities resisted calls for the RUC to be removed from the subsequent investigation.

Then chief constable Sir Ronnie Flanagan conceded that the investigation would be led by senior English detectives and be assisted by the FBI.

The FBI’s day to day involvement would last just a matter of weeks.

With massive international pressure on the RUC to be seen to properly investigate the solicitor’s death, then Norfolk Constabulary Deputy Chief Constable Colin Port was brought in to Northern Ireland to lead the murder hunt.

A decade later, Mr Port would tell the public inquiry into the solicitor’s death how he had to be ordered to take over the investigation as “no one else would do it”.

Revealing the extreme reluctance of English detectives to become involved in the solicitor’s murder investigation, he said:

“The Chief Constable (Norfolk) changed his mind.

“He told me that I had to do it.

“He said there was no alternative as no-one else would do it.”

Mr Port said that during his first meeting with Sir Ronnie Flanagan he was told that Mrs Nelson’s murder was a “serious issue” and that people were already drawing comparisons with the killing of fellow solicitor Pat Finucane ten years earlier.

In what could prove to have been one of the most telling statements heard by the inquiry, the English detective said it was one of his “greatest regrets” that he had not been in charge of the investigation into Mrs Nelson’s murder from its inception, having arrived three weeks after the investigation had already begun.

“It would have been a lot better if I had been there from day one,” he said.

Mr Port said he had been given assurances that the inquiry would only take three months, but he had ended up in Northern Ireland for nearly three years.

FBI advisor John E Guido with Nelson murder squad chief Colin Port

FBI advisor John E Guido with Nelson murder squad chief Colin Port

The inquiry was told of tensions between Mr Port and RUC Special Branch, who refused to allow him access to loyalist informers.

Special Branch were found to have lied to Mr Port and later Police Ombudsman Nuala O’Loan, when it denied that it possessed an intelligence file on Mrs Nelson.

It was only disclosed during the inquiry hearings that Special Branch had mounted a security operation, codenamed Fagotto, around Mrs Nelson’s home and car on the weekend before her murder.

The operation is understood to have reported the presence of known loyalists close to Mrs Nelson’s home, both before and after her murder, which was never acted upon.

Despite the murder investigation costing £7m, no one was ever brought to justice before it was effectively wound down in 2002.

Former RUC Chief Constable Ronnie Flanagan

Former RUC Chief Constable Ronnie Flanagan

Under three days of questioning by the inquiry in January 2009 Mr Flanagan admitted that the RUC had positively identified Mrs Nelson’s killers shortly after her death.

“I do recall being told that (names withheld) carried out the murder and that (name withheld) had made the bomb,” he told the inquiry.

“This was at an early stage in the investigation, although I cannot specifically recall when.

“This was put to me on the basis that Special Branch was confident in this view, it was not a question that these three were mere suspects.”

Mr Flanagan described those who had killed Mrs Nelson as “thugs and cowards”, but insisted that, in the absence of intelligence of a direct threat, police could not have saved the mother-of-three’s life.

He said he had approved the decision to have police monitor her home and business as a precaution, but in the absence of a specific threat, it had been decided that a crime prevention officer should not speak to the solicitor about the danger to her life.

“I personally never dreamt for a moment she was at risk of what subsequently happened," he said.

Asked if he might have done anything differently, he added:

“I would have made sure Mrs Nelson was seen personally, was given advice.”

He said such a move could not have ensured her safety.

He rejected claims that the failure to identify the planned attack on Mrs Nelson was an intelligence failure, stating: “Intelligence is not infallible.”

However, the inquiry also heard how RUC Special Branch had secretly watched meetings between the actual bomb maker and LVF leaders in the days and weeks before the attack on the solicitor.

An RUC Special Branch officer, identified only as `B511’, told the inquiry that police had secretly watched as the loyalist bomb maker met with leading members of the LVF in Lurgan weeks before Mrs Nelson was killed.

While the bomb maker’s identity was not disclosed by the inquiry, loyalist sources later identified him as east Belfast man Thomas “Tucker” Ewing.

“I would have been aware of meetings between figures within the LVF in mid-Ulster and the bomb maker, yes," B511 told the inquiry.

He added: “We had a source of intelligence that started to report on the activities of the bomb maker.

“Any intelligence relating to the bomb maker seemed to be very topical.”

Questioned whether anyone, other than Ewing could have made the bomb which killed the solicitor, he said: “On the loyalist side the capability to make UCBTs (under car booby traps) was limited.

“Historically there were bomb makers that could make such devices.

“However, the recent attacks and the UCBTs that had been used, we believed came from this one individual from the east Belfast area.

“He had produced, I think, a variety of bombs at a certain point in the 1990s.”

Ewing, who was a close associate of Johnny Adair, was reported to have later died from Aids.

LVF leader Mark `Swinger' Fulton

LVF leader Mark `Swinger' Fulton

The solicitor’s murder is understood to have been ordered by LVF leader Mark `Swinger’ Fulton.

Fulton was in prison on the day of the actual attack but is understood to have ordered the killing while on compassionate parole days earlier.

The inquiry also heard evidence from a British army intelligence officer about the apparent indifference from some members of the security forces in the immediate aftermath of Mrs Nelson’s murder.

Royal Military Police officer Christopher Jopling told the inquiry that he had been on patrol with RIR soldiers in Lurgan shortly after the solicitor had been killed on March 15, 1999.

His role while on patrol had been to act as an army ‘spotter’ identifying known loyalist and republican suspects in the mid-Ulster area.

Within minutes of Mrs Nelson’s murder his patrol had been ordered to set up a roadblock at North Circular Road and Lake Street in Lurgan, a short distance away from the Nelson family home.

He revealed how a car containing two loyalist suspects was stopped at the checkpoint a short time later.

“I remember this as they were believed to be loyalists and were in a staunchly republican area,” he said.

“I spoke with both men, who said they’d been visiting the graveyard.

“I can’t remember this conversation now but remember that the graveyard was in a Catholic area and therefore it would have been strange for them to have been there.

“I’m surprised that they and their vehicle were not searched at the time, given their explanation."

However, the soldier said that when he asked the patrol commander, identified only as `A620’, to alert his superiors back at base to the fact that two known loyalists had been spotted in the area of the killing, he was told:

“I probably won’t bother with that. You know, there is no need.”

Questioned by inquiry counsel, Rory Phillips QC, if he thought the refusal to pass on this information had been unusual, he replied: "Yes, pretty much. He told me not to bother doing it.

“It appeared that he knew who these persons were but did not want to pass the information on. I thought his actions were strange.”

In an earlier statement to police, Jopling had claimed that `A620’ “would be more verbally aggressive to residents of Catholic estates than other RIR soldiers that I worked with.”

He claimed `A620’ was “always reluctant to pass details of loyalist sightings and would encourage officers in his patrol to do the same.”

However, when he appeared at the inquiry `A620’ rejected the claim that he had failed to pass on the identity of two suspects to his superiors.

“No, I never said nothing about not radioing any sighting through and I never seen no individuals that has been named there," he said.

“I was not slanted at all in any way.”

The alleged animosity which the RUC had towards Mrs Nelson is expected to play a central role in the inquiry’s final report.

During nearly a year of public sessions the inquiry heard evidence from high ranking RUC detectives as well as senior officials from MI5, British army and the Northern Ireland Office.

The inquiry was told that the RUC had been recording the “minutiae of her life” for almost three years before Mrs Nelson’s murder.

Rosemary Nelson with Colin Duffy and Sinn Fein MLA Barry McElduff

Rosemary Nelson with Colin Duffy and Sinn Fein MLA Barry McElduff

Police had bugged a property owned by Mrs Nelson, which had been rented to Colin Duffy.

The RUC had also sought permission from then Secretary of State Mo Mowlam to secretly bug Mrs Nelson’s solicitor’s office.

Mr Phillips said that Special Branch had been collecting intelligence “specifically relating to” Mrs Nelson for three years before her murder.

“The volume and the detail of the reporting gives rise to a series of questions,’’ he said.

“Why was Special Branch recording information of this kind relating to Rosemary Nelson’s private life, including details of her family, friends, people who worked in her solicitor’s office?”

Given “this intense focus”, Mr Phillips said, the question arose as to whether “there was in fact a file on Rosemary Nelson in existence at the time of her murder?"

Police had previously told Colin Port and Police Ombudsman Nuala O’Loan that no file existed.

Mr Flanagan insisted that he had not known that Special Branch had a file on Mrs Nelson.

Questioned if he agreed with Special Branch allegations that Mrs Nelson had “crossed the line” and actively worked for the PIRA, he said: “It’s certainly not something of which I am aware.”

He rejected claims from senior Special Branch officers that his “hands on” approach meant that he must have been aware that it was treating Mrs Nelson as a suspect.

“There was nothing untoward said that came to my ears in any briefing I received from Special Branch,” he said.

However the inquiry heard serious inconsistencies in some of the evidence given by senior civil servants and the chief constable.

Special Branch documents were supplied to the inquiry claiming that Mrs Nelson had also been having an affair with Colin Duffy.

A claim rejected by the Nelson family and nationalist politicians.

Mr Flanagan told the inquiry he viewed the alleged affair as rumour.

He rejected evidence from a member of the Independent Commission for Police Complaints (ICPC) that he had told her that Mrs Nelson was having an affair with Duffy.

Rory Phillips QC put it to Mr Flanagan that one of Northern Ireland’s most senior civil servant, Joseph Pilling, had also recalled the chief constable raising the alleged affair.

“I have no recollection of having discussed with Sir Joe Pilling about this matter,” he said.

Mr Flanagan said if he had ever raised the alleged affair, it was in the sense that he had heard references to it, which he believed were rumour.

He also rejected a claim from another senior Northern Ireland Office official, David Watkins, that he had called Mrs Nelson an “immoral woman”.

“Absolutely not,” he said, "And I have read the evidence and it seems to me to be completely at odds with the statement.”

Dr Param Cumaraswamy

Dr Param Cumaraswamy

Mr Flanagan was also questioned about a meeting which had taken place in late 1997 between senior RUC officers and then UN Special Rapporteur Dr Param Cumaraswamy, who had come to Northern Ireland to investigate allegations of threats against solicitors.

The inquiry was shown an initial draft of a report written by Mr Cumaraswamy, which stated that the chief constable had expressed views that “some solicitors may in fact be working for the paramilitaries".

“In this regard he (Mr Flanagan) stated that this is more than a suspicion,” it said.

The chief constable later denied making the comments and told the inquiry: “I have never and don’t now hold such a view.”

While Dr Cumaraswamy insisted that the remarks had been made, he agreed to remove them from his final report.

However his final report did conclude that a number of RUC officers had been involved in “activities which constitute intimidation, hindrance, harassment or improper interference” against lawyers.

When Dr Cumaraswamy gave evidence to the inquiry in January 2009, he recalled his final meeting with Mrs Nelson in Washington DC six months before she was killed.

“I felt that Rosemary Nelson was troubled by her safety and I noted that her case always reminded me of Pat Finucane’s situation," he said.

Expressing regret that more had not been done to protect Mrs Nelson’s life, he said: "Her murder caused me a great deal of concern.

“It was the greatest regret of my nine years as a Special Rapporteur that I couldn’t save her in the plight that she was in.

“So much was done by all concerned but we couldn’t save her.”

Nuala O'Loan with Rosemary Nelson report

Nuala O'Loan with Rosemary Nelson report

In 2007 a report by then Police Ombudsman Nuala O’Loan concluded that the RUC and NIO had both failed to take proper action after being alerted to the existence of threats against Mrs Nelson’s life.

In the two years before her death the mother-of-three had reported 20 separate threats to her life, two of which had allegedly been made by police officers.

In 1998 the Committee on the Administration of Justice (CAJ) had forwarded copies of two threats against Mrs Nelson’s life to officials at the Northern Ireland Office and asked that an assessment be carried out on the level of threat to the solicitor’s life.

The threats related to a leaflet identifying Mrs Nelson’s address and telephone number and an anonymous death threat to her home.

However Mrs O’Loan found that NIO officials had failed to forward the threat copies to the RUC and instead had faxed a “general” letter to police.

Mrs Nelson later showed the letter to RUC officers herself during a meeting in September 1998.

Mrs O’Loan concluded that the NIO had failed to take proper steps to deal with the threats, while the RUC’s subsequent actions had been “inadequate”.

“They did not acknowledge the existence of the previous death threats, including two threats which were said to have come from police officers,” she said.

“Nor did they acknowledge a previous assessment in which Special Branch believed Mrs Nelson was at a ‘degree of risk’."

Mrs O’Loan said she had found no evidence that any police officer had been asked to assess the risk to Mrs Nelson’s life.

“No individual officer had the responsibility for bringing together all these matters and making a risk and threat assessment based on all the available information,” she said.

“There were no systems in place at that time designed to ensure that information was captured and processed in that way.”

Highlighting the RUC’s failure to properly investigate the threats, she said:

“Whether or not the anonymous note could have provided any forensic opportunity is a moot point.

“There is no evidence that the RUC tried to get the NIO copy of the anonymous letter, much less trace the original itself.

“Strenuous inquiries should have been made into all the threats which Mrs Nelson received to identify whether there was any association between those threats and paramilitaries.”

However, Mrs O’Loan rejected a complaint that the RUC had failed to warn Mrs Nelson of the threats to her life, on the basis that she had found no police intelligence files relating to LVF threats against her.

A key finding in today report will be whether Special Branch withheld intelligence files from both Mr Port’s original murder investigation and Mrs O’Loan subsequent ombudsman’s investigation, which would have highlighted those threats.

Another key aspect of today’s report will be whether the inquiry concludes that there was RUC collusion either in Mrs Nelson’s murder or later in the failure to bring the killers’ to justice.

It is expected that inquiry chairman Michael Morland may stop short of concluding that there was collusion, but may find that Colin Port’s investigation had been impeded by Special Branch failure to handover all relevant information.

It is speculated that he may also criticize the RUC for failing to take proper steps to warn Mrs Nelson of the threat to her life.

Critics will also closely scrutinize whether the inquiry makes any judgement on the apparent contradictions between the evidence given by Sir Ronnie Flanagan and senior NIO officials.