Murder and Ireland's 'peace process'
By Stuart Ross
The Pat Finucane Centre in Derry has recently published a 50-page report into the circumstances leading to the murder of one of Ireland's most prominent human rights lawyers, Rosemary Nelson. On March 15 she died within hours of a bomb exploding underneath her car. Titled "Rosemary Nelson: The Life and Death of a Human Rights Defender", the report is available on the centre's web site at <http://www.serve.com/pfc>.
The loyalist Red Hand Defenders claimed responsibility for the attack; they had already claimed responsibility for the murders of Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) constable Frank O'Reilly and North Belfast man Brian Service.
However, their professed involvement in Nelson's murder did little to quell republicans' allegations of security force collusion. "No matter which loyalist group claim[ed responsibility for the] ... attack", argues the Pat Finucane Centre's Paul O'Connor, "Rosemary was under threat from RUC officers who continually passed intimidating messages on to her through her clients".
Last year, a leading United Nations official, Param Cumaraswamy, published a damning report highlighting the harassment and intimidation of defence lawyers in Northern Ireland. Similar reports have been published by the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights and British-Irish Rights Watch.
Soon after learning of Nelson's murder, Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern issued a statement which made a vague reference to "threats to [Nelson's] life arising from her work". He neglected to mention that many of those threats came from the RUC. Instead, both Ahern and his minister for foreign affairs, David Andrews, simply bemoaned the "attack on the peace process".
The immediate reaction of the British government was no different. Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair issued a brief statement condemning the "senseless" murder, while a Northern Ireland Office spokesperson argued that such attacks would "only strengthen [the British government's] determination to make the Good Friday agreement work".
Since the signing of that agreement, both governments have issued statements expressing similar combinations of condemnation and resolve — but they have been issuing such statements for more than 30 years. Rarely are these words backed up with the political will necessary to foster a just and lasting peace in Ireland.
While the likes of Ahern and Blair denounce acts of political or sectarian violence, little is being done to fill the political vacuum in Northern Ireland. Since the new year, loyalist paramilitaries have carried out an average of one shooting or bombing attack on the Catholic population every four days.
Politicians are full of praise for the Good Friday agreement, but it is clear that not many are prepared to live up to their side of the bargain.
Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, the Committee on the Administration of Justice, British/Irish Rights Watch and the Irish Council on Civil Liberties have all called for an independent investigation and inquiry into the murder of Nelson. Britain, however, has ignored these demands; an English police chief has been appointed to oversee the investigation, and the RUC are still involved in it. The Irish government has been weak in its criticism of this.
The unfolding inquiry into the assassination of Nelson will certainly test the supposed resolve of the two governments. As her husband pointed out in a recent address to the US Congress, the circumstances surrounding her murder have "potentially huge implications for policing and human rights in the north of Ireland". Whatever happens in terms of the pursuit of truth and justice in this case, it will also say much about Ireland's "peace process".
The Rosemary Nelson Campaign, launched in Belfast on April 9, has a web site at <http://www.free-eire.org/nelson.html>.