16 May 2002 Edition
Report slams RUC for ignoring Nelson death threats
Another devastatingly critical report by the Police Ombudsman on the conduct of the RUC, this time regarding the force's handling of the events leading up to the assassination of human rights lawyer Rosemary Nelson in March 1999, is to be published shortly. It comes some six months after the RUC was roundly savaged by the Ombudsman Nuala O'Loan in her report on its botched investigation into the Omagh bombing.
Details of the Ombudsman's report on the Nelson case have been leaked to a Scottish newspaper, the Sunday Herald, which this week reported that it has received "detailed briefings" on the contents. It quotes a source close to the Ombudsman who says: "The questions the report primarily asks are: did the RUC deal appropriately with the threats against Rosemary Nelson and did they deal adequately with her requests for protection? The answer to both these questions is a resounding no." The article continues: "The implication is clear: while the RUC may not have actively colluded in her death, they effectively allowed her to die at the hands of terrorists. They allowed her to become a target."
Before her killing, Rosemary Nelson had, of course, long been a thorn in the side of the RUC, and there are reports of police officers at Lurgan barracks celebrating the news of her death and exchanging jokes with British soldiers. Three of her cases in particular rankled bitterly: she represented Colin Duffy, who was acquitted on appeal of killing a soldier; she also represented the family of Robert Hamill, in whose killing the RUC is also deeply implicated; and she represented the residents of the Garvaghy Road. As well as the everyday intimidation she suffered while representing her clients - she was, for example, physically assaulted and verbally abused by RUC officers during the disturbances on Garvaghy Road in 1997 - it is also certain that the force was itself involved in some of the numerous death threats made against her. There are also serious but unanswered questions surrounding the huge increase in security force activity in Lurgan the day before she was killed by a car bomb claimed by the Red Hand Defenders.
However, resentment against Rosemary Nelson was not confined to Lurgan barracks. According to the Sunday Herald, the then Chief Constable, Ronnie Flanagan responded to representations by British Irish Rights Watch (BIRW) requesting that he personally intervene to end the force's intimidation of Rosemary, by writing: "I suppose by now I really should have learned to expect, and not be surprised by, the total absence of balance in reports produced by your organisation." Flanagan also ignored a report by the UN special rapporteur Param Cumaraswamy, which said that police intimidation of lawyers in the north of Ireland was "consistent and systematic". The British government, which was also well aware of the ongoing intimidation, declined to place Rosemary on the Key Persons Protection Scheme. Since her death, the RUC has continued to deny, despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that it knew her life was in danger.
Human rights campaigners in Ireland and elsewhere argue that the response to BIRW - and indeed to anyone or any organisation which expressed fears for Nelson's safety - is one factor among many demonstrating that the RUC was an integral part of the culture that encouraged the demonisation of certain lawyers. This culture associated her personally with the activities of some of her clients and ultimately helped to create the climate that led to her death.
The Police Ombudsman's report should have been published this week, but publication has been delayed after the Belfast-based human rights group, the Committee for the Administration of Justice (CAJ), won a judicial review in the High Court. Its legal intervention came as part of its attempts to obtain full disclosure by the Ombudsman of documents relating to the death threats made against Rosemary Nelson by loyalists. Although the Ombudsman is believed to be willing to release such documents, she is at present unable to do so under the rules on confidentiality. The Sunday Herald reported that she is rumoured to be "perfectly at ease" at the prospect of losing the case brought by the CAJ.
Hamill convictions amid fresh inquiry calls
News of the impending report came a few days after the fifth anniversary of the killing of Robert Hamill, whose family Rosemary Nelson represented as they sought to establish the circumstances surrounding his agonised death on 8 May 1997, twelve days after he was attacked by loyalists in Portadown.
Last week, James McKee and his estranged wife, Andrea McKee, were convicted after pleading guilty to perverting the course of justice in the Hamill case. James McKee was sentenced to six months imprisonment and Andrea McKee received a similar sentence, suspended for two years. The charges concerned a telephone call made to one of the suspects the day after the attack on Hamill. During the case it emerged that the Director of Public Prosecutions is examining the case against another individual, believed to be a police officer, who is also made a telephone call to one of the suspects within hours of the attack, allegedly to advise him to dispose of the clothes he had been wearing.
At a Westminster meeting on policing in the Six Counties, held on Wednesday 8 May to coincide with the anniversary of Hamill's death, campaigners reiterated their demand for an independent public inquiry into the RUC's failure to intervene to save Hamill's life as he was attacked in full view of an RUC patrol, and into the force's subsequent handling of the investigation. They also renewed calls for similar inquiries into the asssassinations of Rosemary Nelson and Pat Finucane.
Jeremy Hardy, for the Robert Hamill campaign, told the meeting that the Hamill case is to be passed to a recently appointed international judge for examination, along with five other cases, including those of Rosemary Nelson, Pat Finucane and Billy Wright. The two other cases involve alleged Garda collusion. However, he said that campaigners have reservations about such referrals.
"What struck me as particularly calculated was that these three cases [Robert, Rosemary and Pat Finucane] have been lumped together with three other cases to balance it out, to keep the numbers even on both sides," he said. "I'm not against anyone having a public inquiry - and certainly there is a case for Billy Wright's family as it seems quite likely that there was collusion - but we have never wanted this case to be a sweetener, we never wanted it to be part of the peace process, of trying not to upset unionists whilst trying to appease nationalists.
"The idea is that these cases should be bundled together as some kind of wish list. Robert has been called 'another republican propaganda case'. Well, many of us have tried to present this as a human rights case very similar to the cases of Stephen Lawrence and Michael Menson. And we have had tremendous support from the black and Asian communities in this country, who are quick to understand what we are saying about the police."
He was critical of the hostility many unionist politicians have displayed towards the request for an inquiry, particularly Ken (now Lord) Maginnis and the Hamills' own MP, David Trimble. "It saddens me that the unionist parties have set their faces so vehemently against an inquiry," he said. "I don't know quite why that should be." He reminded the meeting that Trimble had taken a year to write to the Hamill family, with a letter which read:
"Dear Ms Hamill,
Further to your recent letter regarding the death of your brother Robert, I can confirm that I have received your original letter and have written to the sub-divisional commander of the RUC as per the enclosed copy. On checking our files I see that I have not yet received a response and I will contact them again to see if they are yet in a position to reply."
There was, Jeremy Hardy observed, no offering of condolences or acknowledgement of what the family had suffered. Duly enclosed was a highly illuminating copy of Trimble's letter to one Superintendent Bailey, which read:
"Further to your telephone conversation with my wife, I wonder if you could let me know the up to date position on the various investigations into the Hamill murder. Could you also confirm, if I am right in my understanding, that the police patrol on the scene attempted to intervene, but were prevented from doing so by the crowd."
In calling for a proper inquiry into the RUC's conduct, Jeremy Hardy acknowledged that, as with the Stephen Lawrence case, it was unlikely that anyone would ever go to prison for killing Robert Hamill, although the identity of his killers is known. An open inquiry was, however, the best hope that the family had of being able to arrive as some kind of closure. He said: "I can't see how anybody of any heart or intellect could say that there is a case for opposing a public inquiry into the murder of Robert Hamill."
He continued: "Some people say 'why don't you call for an inquiry into what the IRA have done?' Well, because the IRA is an illegal organisation which has taken responsibility for its actions, and very often people have been arrested and served time.
"We are saying that the British state has a case to answer, that the British state must cleanse itself, that it must begin to tell us what happened and why it happened. There is a difference between, say, the Warrington bombing, where we know exactly who did it, and they said why, and the case of Robert Hamill where four officers failed to act on information which might have saved a man's life, certainly failed to prevent the attack when it was happening, and quite spectacularly failed in the investigation into his death."
Delay in informing SF reps of loyalist death threats
Davy Hyland, Chairperson Newry & Mourne District Council, and other Sinn Féin councillors have been contacted by the RUC/PSNI to inform them that they have received death threats to their lives.
Hyland told An Phoblacht that on Friday night 10 May and again on Saturday morning the PSNI contacted him to say they had received death threats to the lives of Sinn Féin councillors. This threat, it emerged, has existed since 25 April, following an attack on a former Sinn Féin councillor's home in Belfast. "Despite the fact that loyalists have been responsible for planting over 500 pipe bombs in the last 12 months, the PSNI have adopted a very casual and negligent manner in contacting me and my fellow Sinn Féin councillors," said Hyland.
"The time lapse involved in contacting all councillors has put our lives and the well-being of our families at serious risk of injury or death. In fact, not all councillors have been contacted to date. This immediate threat to our lives emanates from the Red Hand Commando loyalist group and brings into question the very existence of the loyalist ceasefire.
"No urgency was shown in contacting us about these death threats. However helicopters carrying large numbers of British troops and members of the PSNI clad in riot uniform were dispatched in recent weeks in South Armagh to arrest people for a civil offence or indeed to drag people from their homes only to be released several hours later without charge. The PSNI have once again demonstrated a sectarian and biased attitude when dealing with loyalist threats against republicans."