Issue 229 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published April 1999 Copyright Socialist Review

Rosemary Nelson and the rule of law

The talk may be of peace but the armed forces and Loyalists are still killing. Eamonn McCann looks at the life of a campaigning lawyer and the murderous nature of the Northern Ireland state
A thorn in their side

Tony Blair says that 'no effort will be spared' in pursuing the killers of Rosemary Nelson, but there's no reason to believe him. One of the reasons the Lurgan lawyer was assassinated had to do with her insistence that no serious effort had been made to pursue the killers of Pat Finucane or Robert Hamill. It was in pursuing these cases, and representing the nationalist people of the Garvaghy Road in their continuing resistance to the Orange Order parading through their area, that she became a thorn in the side of the security forces and political authorities as well as a hate figure for Orange bigotry. Thus the suspicion of collusion between Loyalist paramilitaries who planted a bomb under her car and members of the security forces who wanted her out of the way.

Pat Finucane was the Belfast solicitor shot dead on his doorstep in 1989 by a UDA death squad. Robert Hamill, 25 and a father of two, was kicked to death by a Loyalist mob in Portadown in April 1997. Ms Nelson made no secret of her belief that elements of the security forces had been involved in a conspiracy to murder Pat Finucane, and that others had, at the least, been complicit by inaction in the death of Robert Hamill--a heavily armed RUC unit just 40 yards away had ignored the desperate pleas of Robert's friends to intervene. Rosemary reasoned that security chiefs didn't want the truth of the two cases to come out because the truth would prove devastating for the forces under their command. It will take more than a solemn statement from Blair's press office, or the importation of the chief constable of Kent to 'supervise' the investigation, to convince those who share Ms Nelson's opinions that things will be different in her own case.

The record of British policemen brought to Northern Ireland in comparable circumstances is not good. In 1985 John Stalker, then deputy chief constable of the Manchester police, was appointed to investigate allegations that an elite RUC unit had carried out 'extra-judicial killings' in County Armagh in which six unarmed men were shot dead. In May 1986, by which time Stalker had completed his preliminary inquiries and was about to interview RUC chief constable John Hermon under caution, he was suddenly replaced by Colin Sampson of the West Yorkshire police after bizarre allegations (eventually disproven) that Stalker had himself been associating with criminals. In January 1988 Sampson finally produced a report which enabled attorney general Patrick Mayhew to announce that none of the RUC men involved would be charged. Mayhew did concede in the House of Commons that the report contained prima facie evidence of a police conspiracy, involving perjury in court, to conceal the truth about the killings--but claimed that it would not be in the 'public interest' to bring charges even on this basis.

In August 1989 John Stevens of the Cambridgeshire police was appointed to investigate the wholesale leaking of RUC and British army files on Republicans to Loyalist paramilitary groups. His inquiries led to the arrest of the UDA's 'Intelligence officer', Brian Nelson, who had selected Pat Finucane for murder. Nelson claimed that he was working under cover for British military intelligence and had kept his army superiors informed of his activities at all times. This was confirmed at his trial--he was convicted of five murders--by a 'Colonel H' of military intelligence. No policeman or soldier was ever charged as a result of Stevens' inquiries.

Despite all this delving by 'impartial' outside officers, the arrival of each having been hailed as evidence of the British government's determination to get at the hidden truths of Northern Ireland, the only policeman to lose his job as a result was John Stalker. Rosemary Nelson was keenly aware of this, and would not have put her trust in an RUC inquiry headed by a Kent policeman sent to get to the truth of RUC/Loyalist collusion. Nor would she have accepted the bona fides of the Blair government.

A month before she died, on 12 February, Ms Nelson spoke at a function in a pub in Derry marking the tenth anniversary of Pat Finucane's death. It was an upbeat occasion. Jeremy Hardy provided the entertainment. I was the MC. Ms Nelson had been invited to speak because, more than any other legal figure in the North, she had come to represent the continuation of the legacy of Pat Finucane. There is, of course, a savage irony about that now.

Thousands gather at the funeral of Rosemary Nelson

The main topic of conversation after the formal part of the evening was the Peter McBride case. In the high court in Belfast just three days earlier, Peter McBride's mother, Jean, had been given permission to seek a judicial review of the decision of a British army board to allow the soldiers convicted of murdering her son to return to duty with the Scots Guards. The decision had been made in the light of an affidavit put in front of the board by the men's commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Timothy Spicer. Peter McBride, 18, had been shot in the back in the New Lodge Road area of Belfast in September 1992. It was agreed by all sides at the subsequent trial that he had been stopped and searched, and had then run away after an exchange of unpleasantaries with the Scots Guards patrol; that a number of the soldiers had pursued him; and that two, Mark Wright and Peter Fisher, had opened fire on him, one going down on one knee to take aim. The two soldiers' claim that they believed Peter had a 'coffee jar bomb' hidden in his clothes and might have been about to throw it, threatening their lives (bringing the shooting within the army's rules of engagement) was rejected in forthright, even scornful, terms at Belfast Crown Court. The pair were given life. The court of appeal threw their appeal out, as did the House of Lords, explicitly rejecting the defence that the shooting had been within the rules of engagement.

Last September the two men (who didn't qualify for early release under the Multi-Party Agreement since the British government refused to put soldiers on a par with paramilitaries) were released early, by decision of Northern Ireland secretary Mo Mowlam. Six weeks later, in the first week of November, an army board accepted them back into their regiment. Under Queen's regulations, a soldier convicted of a custodial offence must be dismissed unless there are 'exceptional circumstances' confirmed by his commanding officer and accepted by the board. Colonel Spicer obviously felt strongly about the case. His affidavit, running to 3,500 words, was signed on 15 June last, a busy time for the former battalion commander. The company he had formed on leaving the army, Sandline International, was embroiled in controversy over its role in running guns to a faction in Sierra Leone in defiance of a United Nations resolution and the express policy of the British government.

In the affidavit, Spicer recalled his anger on arriving at the scene and discovering that the two soldiers had been held for questioning. 'It was my inclination that we should follow the correct forensic procedures in that [the soldiers'] weapons should be removed from them and preserved as evidence, that they should be rearmed, re-zero their weapons and ... return to the streets.' He went on 'These soldiers have been treated grossly unfairly... The legal system designed to protect people in this country has not come up to scratch. At all times I believe that these soldiers were acting in good faith within the terms of the rules of engagement.'

The 'exceptional circumstances' Spicer was pointing to were that the decisions of the courts, up to and including the House of Lords, were wrong and should be rejected. The law of the land hadn't come up to scratch. The army board should pay it no heed. The board, in the name of the British army itself, concurred. This endorsement of Spicer's attitude was then upheld by the Labour government. At a meeting with Jean McBride on 26 February, armed forces minister Doug Henderson, flanked by Commander Simon Gillespie, 'military assistant to the minister', defended the board's decision in vigorous terms which led Jean McBride to run from the room in tears. As Rosemary Nelson was to observe in the discussion on Pat Finucane's anniversary, this amounted to a rejection by a government minister of the rule of law as it applied to members of the security forces. Was it not unreasonable, she wondered, given the clear signals coming from government, to expect members of the RUC, recruited overwhelmingly from the local Protestant community and in the front line of a dirty war for a quarter of a century, to uphold the rule of law along the Garvaghy Road?

It was the rule of law she had concentrated on in her address to the gathering. Anyone who had come along hoping for a blood and thunder nationalist diatribe would have been disappointed. The rule of law in any society, she argued, had to mean people had a right to be free, not just from the threat of bomb and bullet, but from encirclement by malice and spite. It meant an end to sectarian oppression.

You have to wonder what Mo Mowlam would make of this lawyerly approach. Does she believe that the rule of law requires that the Orange Order is given the go ahead to march down the road despite the strongly expressed feeling of the local people that they'd be humiliated and devalued if this happened? Does she believe that the Orange Order retains this right while refusing even to break breath with the chosen representatives of the people of Garvaghy Road--including Rosemary Nelson while she was alive?

Mowlam may have views on the matter, but leaves decisions about marches to the Parades Commission, under ex-union boss Alasdair Graham. The chief constable of the RUC can then ignore the commission's ruling if he reckons on the day that a different course of action would better serve...'the rule of law'.

Even now, after Rosemary Nelson's death, the Orange Order refuses to speak with the remaining representatives of the Garvaghy Road. Lambeg drummers gathered near Garvaghy Road on 17 March to celebrate her murder. A working class community is still beseiged by hatred, the cops continue to collude with sectarian bigotry, and Labour responds either by sloughing off responsibility or with the phoney, futile devices of the Tory years. Blair's assurances that 'no effort will be spared' to uncover the truth about Rosemary Nelson's murder are not credible.

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