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British Government dismisses Nelson inquiry report 

JM Thorn 

29 May 2011

The British Government has dismissed the findings of the inquiry into the murder of Lurgan solicitor Rosemary Nelson.  The inquiry was established following recommendations from retired Canadian judge Peter Cory on how to deal with a number of high profile killings in which there was suspicion of state collusion. 

While such inquiries (which are established by the British state to investigate itself) have severe limitations they often contain information that serves to highlight to the role that the British state has played in the north and undermine the official conclusions drawn from them.  This is certainly the case with the report of the Nelson inquiry.  For while it rejects the charge of “direct” collusion in her death, the litany of abuses and failures by state agencies that it outlines do in fact confirm collusion.  Its authors can only deny collusion by using an extremely narrow definition of what that constitutes.  Of course it is this conclusion that has been seized on by the British Government to in order dismiss conclusion claims.  In his response to the report the Secretary of State Owen Paterson stated that while he was “profoundly sorry” that state “omissions” meant that Rosemary Nelson had not been properly protected there were no findings of collusion. “Those who are looking for evidence that the state conspired or planned the death of Rosemary Nelson will not find it in this report,” he said.  The Nelson family however have rightly accused him of glossing over “any findings in the report which he thought were particularly damning.”

What does the report actually say? 

The report starts by giving some background to murder of Rosemary Nelson. It outlines how her death was ultimately a result of her work as a solicitor in the Lurgan area. This work included acting on behalf of the family of Robert Hamill, a Catholic man beaten to death by a loyalist mob in Portadown within sight of an RUC land rover; for the Garvarghy Road Residents Association, who were opposing an Orange parade; and for Colin Duffy, a Lurgan republican whose murder conviction was quashed when it was revealed that the state’s main witness was a UVF gunrunner.  Rosemary Nelson’s effectiveness in representing her clients made her hate figure to loyalists and the police.  For Loyalist paramilitaries Rosemary Nelson was a “trophy target”.

The role of state agencies in the targeting of Rosemary Nelson was through both incitement and omission.   The report finds that the RUC had a jaundiced view of the solicitor who they falsely claimed to be a “personality” in the Provisional IRA.  There were also threats made by the police against Rosemary Nelson.  Some of these were conveyed through her clients.    In one 1997 incident, one of her clients said a police officer said: "She (Nelson) won't be here that long - she will be dead."  Another client accused officers of calling her a "terrorist with a deformed face".  Rosemary Nelson was repeatedly verbally abused and threatened by police officers.  An assault on her by police officers in Portadown two years before her death “had the effect of legitimising her as a target” in the eyes of Loyalists, according to the inquiry report. 

The report also found that police were actively inciting loyalists to target Rosemary Nelson   Trevor McKeown, a loyalist convicted of killing an 18-year-old Catholic woman, gave a statement, saying that two RUC officers had asked him why he had not shot Mrs Nelson instead.  McKeown's claim first emerged in a News of the World story, six years after the alleged comments. The inquiry found it could not dismiss his allegations as a media tale because they accurately reflected the views of RUC officers.  It found that there was a “leakage of intelligence” from the police that “increased the danger to Rosemary Nelson’s life.”  The RUC also failed to warn the solicitor of her increasing vulnerability.  The hostility towards Rosemary Nelson was not confined to the police and loyalists.  It was also reflected in the British Government through the Northern Ireland Office (NIO).  The report accuses the NIO of lethargy, dealing with reported threats in “a mechanistic way” and displaying “a pervasive hostility” towards her. 


Despite the evidence of collusion contained in the report of the Nelson its authors draw back from making this conclusion. They only go so far as to consider the possibility of  “a rogue member or members of the security forces assisting the murderers to target her.”  

Any conventional definition applied to the evidence would have concluded that there was collusion.  Indeed, if the definition set out by Judge Cory had been applied, collusion would have been found.   He said that such a definition “must be reasonably broad” when applied to state agencies.

“This is to say they must not act collusively by ignoring or turning a blind eye to the wrongful acts of their servants or agents or supplying information to assist those servants or agents in their wrongful acts or encouraging others to commit a wrongful act”.

For him “any lesser definition would have the effect of condoning, or even encouraging, state involvement in crimes, thereby shattering all public confidence in governmental agencies”.   

Judge Cory’s definition of collusion includes acts of omission as well as commission.  So let’s apply this definition to the specifics of the report.   It says that the RUC “negligently failed to intervene to prevent their officers from uttering abuse and threats to defence solicitors, including Rosemary Nelson”.  This clearly falls into the category of collusion, defined by Judge Cory, as “ignoring or turning a blind eye to the wrongful acts of their servants or agents”.  The report’s says that some RUC members “publicly abused and assaulted Rosemary Nelson … having the effect of legitimising her as a target”. This falls within Cory’s definition of collusion as “encouraging others to commit a wrongful act” and therefore also amounts to collusion.  The report’s finding that there was “some leakage of intelligence which we believe found its way outside the RUC” also amounts to collusion in her murder.  


The fact that the report did not conclude that Rosemary Nelson’s death was a result of collusion despite the compelling evidence pointing to such a conclusion highlights the limitations of such inquiries.  Because they remain under the control of the British state, have their personnel appointed and terms of reference set by the state, they cannot reveal the state to be engaged in political violence.  Indeed, their purpose is to expressly prevent this.  For such an outcome would shatter the pretence that Britain is essentially neutral in the north and was (and continues to be) only holding the line in a divided community.  

Despite apologies and expressions of regret the British have never conceded this.  The Bloody Sunday tribunal, which was hailed as a success, found the fourteen people who were killed by the British Army to be innocent but responsibility for their deaths was laid on a small number of soldiers who lost control. Claims that the shootings were part of a broader political/military strategy at that time where dismissed out of hand.   The British have also refused to co-operate with the investigation into the Dublin and Monaghan bombings.  Only a couple weeks ago Taoiseach Enda Kenny announced that the British government would not be handing over any files relating to the atrocity despite the longstanding claims of collusion.  It notable that this response followed on quickly from the visit to the south by Queen Elizabeth, which had been hailed as a representation of reconciliation and resolution.  

The fact is that the past has not been resolved and events continue to weigh on the present.  The murder of Rosemary Nelson is a prime example of this, particularly as it took place in the relatively recent past.  It was shocking because it occurred not at the height of the “war” of the 1970 & 80’s, but just a year after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.   It is also the case that many of the police officers and officials who were complicit in her death continue to be in leadership positions under the new political settlement.  Many of the officials attached to the NIO at the time of Rosemary Nelson’s murder have now transferred to Executive departments, including the Department of Justice.  When asked about this a spokesperson for the minister said it was “not an issue”.   The role of these officials was highlighted with the resignation of the chief executive of the Office of the Police Ombudsman.  He complained that Department of Justice officials were undermining the independence of the office.  In addition to this we have recently retired senior police officers repeating publicly the slanders that contributed to Rosemary Nelson’s death. 

All of this shows the degree to which things have not changed in the north.  The armed loyalist groups are still in existence and continue to engage in murder and intimidation.  British officials, once dubbed the “securocrats” by Sinn Fein, continue to exert power trough the intuitions of the state.   Britain is still firmly in control.  However, to acknowledge this would be to strike at the very foundation of the political settlement – that the British have no selfish interests in Ireland and simply act as a neutral arbitrator.   It would also be a recognition that the conditions in which a solicitor “associated” with nationalist or republican causes can be murdered still exist.    


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