Top Issue 1-2024

15 March 2001 Edition

Resize: A A A Print

Rosemary Nelson Memorial Lecture

Introduction by Laura Friel

The room was hot and crowded as several hundred people packed into the Law Society's lecture hall in Belfast last weekend to attend the first memorial lecture dedicated to Rosemary Nelson, the human rights lawyer who died in March 1999 when a booby trap bomb exploded under her car.

Rosemary's husband Paul Nelson and other members of her family had travelled to Belfast to hear American attorney and a former colleague of Rosemary's, Ed Lynch, compare the legacy of Rosemary Nelson to that of black civil rights campaigner Dr Martin Luther King.

A prominent member of the US-based Lawyers Alliance for Human Rights, Ed Lynch had worked with Rosemary Nelson prior to her death. In the wake of persistent death threats made against her by RUC officers, Lynch had raised concerns about her safety with pivotal figures like RUC Chief Ronnie Flanagan and British Home Secretary Jack Straw. Since Rosemary's death, Ed Lynch has campaigned for an independent international inquiry.

Attending the lecture was Geraldine Finucane, widow of Pat Finucane, the Belfast human rights lawyer shot dead over a decade earlier, in February 1989. Belfast human rights lawyer Pádraigín Drinan and Bloody Sunday Tribunal barrister Richard Harvey, together with representatives from Relatives for Justice and the Pat Finucane Centre, were also present.

Senior British barrister Michael Mansfield and Nuala O'Loan of the recently established Police Ombudsman's office were among an audience of international members of the legal profession, which included an American judge. Breandán Mac Cionnaith accompanied a number of residents from the Garvaghy Road Coalition while Gerard Rice represented residents from the Ormeau Road.

Introducing the main speaker, Dr Robbie McVeigh of the Rosemary Nelson Campaign said the demand for an independent international public inquiry into the killing remained the only option if the truth behind Rosemary's death was to be fully established.

Delivering the lecture, Ed Lynch expressed ``profound admiration of members of Rosemary's family and members of the campaign who have not let the passing of time diminish their ardour for the full truth behind the abuse and collusion which led to Rosemary's death.

``They believe, as do I,'' said Lynch, ``that this search for truth will benefit the entire human rights community and the people of Ireland so that the rallying cry of many abused peoples, ``Never Again'', will apply with equal force to Ireland.''

Memorial lectureby Ed Lynch of the Lawyers Alliance for Human Rights

My address is not a memorial to Rosemary but rather a tribute to the perseverance of her spirit and her gifts to the people of Ireland.

Very few lawyers can expect to approach the level of professional excellence and personal courage exhibited by Rosemary Nelson. I am in awe of Rosemary's tenacity and persistence in her campaign for justice for those some might consider the least members of society.

[Lynch then detailed the catalogue of abuse, which included sectarian and obscene abuse as well as death threats made against Rosemary Nelson by members of the RUC detectives and Special Branch prior to her death]

One could easily understand that a lawyer subject to such abuse and threats would retreat from representation of unpopular clients. But Rosemary Nelson was a special person who chose to fulfil her own sworn duty as an advocate for individuals confronted by the power of the state regardless of the misconduct of agents of the state who had abandoned all respect for the law they had sworn to uphold.

When residents of the Garvaghy Road enclave in Portadown were under siege in their homes and neighbourhoods at the hands of unwanted intruders, they turned to Rosemary for legal support. Of course she did not let them down.

As Rosemary testified before the United States Congress, she presented legal petitions within the system established by the British government to voice the objections of citizens to the violation of their right of privacy in their home and streets.

In 1997, Rosemary was personally on the front line of this confrontation as well as in the British courts seeking relief. During the early hours of 5 July the RUC forced the unwanted intruders down the Garvaghy Road, assaulting all those peaceful demonstrators who stood in the way of the violent onslaught. When Rosemary sought to speak to the officer in charge, she was assaulted, subjected to sectarian verbal abuse and rebuffed in obscene language, which unfortunately has become typical matter of communication of certain members of this force.

[A year later, when Rosemary Nelson testified before the United States Congress on 29 September 1998, her complaints against the RUC remained unanswered.]

In her testimony in Washington, Rosemary acknowledged the conduct of the RUC had caused her concern, not only for herself, but also for her family and her staff. She noted that no lawyer in Northern Ireland could forget the fate of Patrick Finucane, who similarly had challenged state abuse, particularly that carried out by the RUC.

In her testimony, Rosemary called for an independent international

inquiry into Mr Finucane's death. Almost 12 years have passed since that date and yet the British government has failed to move forward with a credible international inquiry into evidence of collusion between members of the security forces and the individuals who carried out the actual assassination of Patrick Finucane. Certainly one must conclude that Rosemary's killers were emboldened by the lack of action by the British government in the Finucane case.

Let me pause here to remark upon the striking comparisons between Rosemary's life and that of Dr Martin Luther King. When Dr King received his doctorate in theology from Boston University in 1955, he had several attractive offers to teach in universities or minister in prosperous churches. The alternative was an opportunity to serve as pastor of the Dexter Avenue Church in Montgomery, Alabama, a hotbed of racism and bigotry. Dr King wrote of his thoughts at that time.

`The thing that we need in the world today is a group of men and women who will stand up for right and be opposed to wrong. The universe hinges on a moral foundation. There is something in this universe that justifies Carlyle in saying, ``no lie can live forever''.

`There is something in this universe that justifies William Cullen Bryant in saying, ``truth crushed to earth will rise again''. There is something in this universe that justifies James Russell Lowell in saying, ``truth forever on the scaffold, wrong forever on the throne''.'

Thus Martin Luther King chose to pursue the truth of human dignity as opposed to material comfort. Some thirty years later Rosemary Nelson would make that same choice. [In King's speech to bus boycotters supporting Rosa Parks' stand against racial segregation, he said].

We are here in a general sense because first and foremost we are American citizens and we are determined to apply our citizenship to the fullness of its meaning. We are here also because of our love for democracy, because of our deep-seated belief that democracy transformed from thin paper to thick action is the greatest form of government on earth.

And we are not wrong. We are not wrong in what we are doing. If we are wrong, the Supreme Court of this nation is wrong. If we are wrong, the constitution of the United States is wrong.

We, the disinherited of this land, we who have been oppressed so long, are tired of going through the long night of captivity and now we are reaching out for the daybreak of freedom and justice.

Rosemary Nelson chose, as did her predecessor Dr King, to speak out and fight for justice. After consultation with trusted barrister, and consultation with friends and colleagues, Rosemary decided to go public with her demand that members of the RUC treat her and her clients with the dignity due to them under [domestic] law and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Rosemary asked me and members of our group of American lawyers to assist in her efforts to expose and punish the rottenness pervading the RUC. Commencing on 13 March 1997 and continuing through 27 February 1999, I, and colleagues from America petitioned leaders of the British and Northern Ireland governments and security forces to investigate misconduct by members of the RUC directed against Rosemary Nelson and to protect Rosemary from foreseeable harm.

It is with a pervasive sense of sadness that I must report that the British and Northern Ireland governments abjectly failed in the most basic obligations of government, that is, the protection of the life of one of its citizens.

By early 1999, the situation had become very worrying. Despite Rosemary's efforts to obtain action, and involvement of numerous parties, including a United States Senator, the British government had taken no responsible action to protect Rosemary or ferret out the miscreants within the RUC who were acting with impunity against a lawyer who was simply carrying out her duty to uphold the law.

On 27 February 1999, I and five colleagues, including a retired American Chief of Police and Chairperson of the Congressional Committee on Human Rights, met with the Chief Constable of the RUC, Ronnie Flanagan. We raised the issue of the threats against Rosemary Nelson by members of the RUC. The response forthcoming from the Chief Constable was that the matter was `under investigation''. Sixteen days later on 15 March Rosemary Nelson was assassinated.

On that afternoon, in anguish and anger I telephoned Chief Constable Flanagan, who was unavailable. Sometime later on that same date I received a reply message from the Chief Constable saying that ``no stone would be left unturned'' in pursuing the investigation of those who perpetrated the assassination.

On 17 March I wrote to Chief Constable Flanagan and to Commander Mulvihill of the London Metropolitan police, who was conducting an investigation into the threats against Rosemary prior to her death. I advised these gentlemen as follows, ``I received Chief Flanagan's assurance that no stone would be left unturned in pursuing the killers of Rosemary Nelson. We will hold you to that promise. You might start by upturning the rocks at Gough Barracks.

``RUC detectives stationed there were the source of death threats, insults and intimidation of Rosemary Nelson. Each miscreant who has been identified should be arrested. Those in command who did nothing despite repeated warnings should be sacked. My question is why the British government did not protect Rosemary Nelson despite the well documented threats against her life by its own servants.''

That question remains unanswered.

An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
Dublin 1