Rosemary Nelson Inquiry Report

Part of Oral Answers to Questions — Education – in the House of Commons at 4:05 pm on 23 May 2011.

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Photo of Owen Paterson Owen Paterson The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland 4:05, 23 May 2011

With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the report into the death of Rosemary Nelson, which is being published this afternoon. Mrs Nelson, a solicitor, was murdered close to her home in Lurgan, County Armagh, on 15 March 1999 when a bomb attached to her car exploded. Responsibility for the murder was claimed by the so-called “loyalist” paramilitary group, the Red Hand Defenders.

I will first set out the report’s main conclusions before moving on to outline its findings on the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the Northern Ireland Office and the murder investigation. I will also set out the context in which this tragic event happened. The inquiry was established by the previous Government and was asked to determine

“whether any wrongful act or omission by or within the Royal Ulster Constabulary, Northern Ireland Office, Army or other state agency facilitated her death or obstructed the investigation of it, or whether attempts were made to do so; whether any such act or omission was intentional or negligent; whether the investigation of her death was carried out with due diligence; and to make recommendations.”

I would like to put on the record my thanks to Sir Michael Morland and his fellow panel members Dame Valerie Strachan and Sir Anthony Burden for their work. They have produced a detailed account of the circumstances surrounding this despicable and cowardly murder. This is a lengthy report that has cost £46.5 million and taken six years to complete. I am sure that the whole House will want to join me in hoping that it brings a measure of resolution to Rosemary Nelson’s family.

The report finds that

“There is no evidence of any act by or within any of the state agencies we have examined (the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the Northern Ireland Office, the Army or the Security Service) which directly facilitated Rosemary Nelson’s murder”.

The report goes on to say that

“we cannot exclude the possibility of a rogue member or members of the RUC or the Army in some way assisting the murderers to target Rosemary Nelson”,

although the panel does not provide specific evidence on this.

Those who are looking for evidence that the state conspired in or planned the death of Rosemary Nelson will not find it in this report. It does say that

“there were omissions by state agencies, which rendered Rosemary Nelson more at risk and more vulnerable; the combined effect of these omissions by the RUC and the NIO was that the state failed to take reasonable and proportionate steps to safeguard the life of Rosemary Nelson. If Rosemary Nelson had been given advice about her safety and offered security measures, then assuming that she had accepted such advice and security measures, the risk to her life and her vulnerability would have been reduced”.

The report does however recognise that

“There is nothing that any organisation can do that will infallibly prevent a murder. What can be reasonably looked for is a reduction in the risk”.

I am profoundly sorry that omissions by the state rendered Rosemary Nelson more at risk and more vulnerable. It is also deeply regrettable that, despite a very thorough police investigation, no one has been charged for this terrible crime.

On the investigation into the murder, which was led by a senior police officer from outside Northern Ireland, the report describes it as “exhaustive, energetic and enterprising”, concluding that

“there is no evidence of any deliberate attempt by any of the organs of the state corporately to obstruct the investigation”.

On the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the panel finds that

“some members of the RUC publicly abused and assaulted Rosemary Nelson on the Garvaghy Road in Portadown in 1997, having the effect of legitimising her as a target.”

The report states that

“we believe that there was some leakage of intelligence which we believe found its way outside the RUC”; that

“the leakage increased the danger to Rosemary Nelson’s life”; and that

“some members of the RUC made abusive and/or threatening remarks about Rosemary Nelson to her clients.”

In addition, the report states that

“in assessing whether or not Rosemary Nelson’s life was at risk, RUC Special Branch failed to take into account all the intelligence and the open information available to them…RUC management negligently failed to intervene to prevent their officers from uttering abuse and threats to defence solicitors, including Rosemary Nelson…Local RUC management failed to follow through promised action to pay special attention to Rosemary Nelson’s office and home addresses…there was no analysis or evaluation of intelligence relevant to Rosemary Nelson…there was a corporate failure by the RUC to warn Rosemary Nelson of her vulnerability and offer her security advice”.

In relation to the Northern Ireland Office, the report concludes that

“the NIO did not press the RUC hard enough for full replies to their questions concerning Rosemary Nelson's personal security…the NIO should have proactively questioned the RUC as to what factors were considered in producing a threat assessment…the NIO dealt in a mechanistic way with correspondence from Non-Governmental Organisations raising concerns about Rosemary Nelson's safety.”

The panel, in its findings relating to the accusations of obstruction by the state in the murder investigation, identifies:

“Special Branch gave levels of information unprecedented in the history of the RUC to the Murder Investigation Team”.

The panel also finds that the investigation team had wide-ranging terms of reference and was generously resourced, but that special branch co-operation was incomplete. Special branch was, it states,

“over-possessive about their intelligence…unjustifiably resentful and defensive about any enquiry which they interpreted as treating them as potential suspects…omitted to disclose all items of relevant intelligence”.

The panel concludes, however, that

“in the main, the investigation was carried out to a high standard, in very difficult conditions”,

and says:

“Overall, the investigation of the murder was carried out with due diligence”.

The panel has chosen not to make any recommendations, pointing to

“fundamental changes to the organisations that we have been examining and to the context within which they worked”.

In particular, the panel notes:

“The Royal Ulster Constabulary has now been replaced by the PSNI, on the lines envisaged by the Patten Commission. Many of the reforms were first proposed, and subsequently implemented, by Sir Ronnie Flanagan…Complaints against the police are now investigated by the independent Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland, so the PSNI is not in the position of having to investigate complaints about its own officers…After the murder of Rosemary Nelson, the Key Persons Protection Scheme was amended: defence solicitors were included among those who could qualify for the scheme”.

The report concludes that

“we consider that these changes effectively deal with the systemic problems that we saw in the way that the organisations operated”.

The three panel members say in their foreword:

“We recognise that the context in which these events happened was extraordinarily difficult. We do not underestimate the problems and personal danger faced by the agencies and individuals whose work we have been examining. For example, during the Troubles, over 300 RUC officers lost their lives and over 7000 were injured; over 700 British military personnel were killed and over 6000 were injured”.

At times, such personnel stood quite literally between the rule of law and the descent into anarchy. All of us owe them an immense debt of gratitude, and that is something that this Government will never forget.

The report does make criticisms of the RUC, and we should not seek to gloss over them. But it would be wrong for the criticisms in the report to be used in any way to denigrate the overall record, courage and sacrifice of the RUC. Despite the enormous progress heralded by the agreement, Northern Ireland was still emerging from 30 years of terrorist violence in 1999. With both loyalist and republican dissidents continuing to carry out attacks, the security situation remained dangerous. As the report says,

“there were violent groups who were implacably opposed to the Peace Process who were prepared to commit sectarian murder”.

In conclusion, it is clear that just as Lord Saville found no evidence of a conspiracy by the British state, and just as Lord MacLean found no evidence of state collusion in the murder of Billy Wright, so this panel finds no evidence of any act by the state which directly facilitated Rosemary Nelson’s murder.

This report is a detailed and authoritative account of the circumstances surrounding Rosemary Nelson’s horrific death. Politically motivated violence can never be justified. The whole House will wish to join me in condemning her vile murder and also extending our deepest sympathies to her family. I commend this statement to the House.