Rosemary Nelson Inquiry Report

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

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Photo of Shaun Woodward Shaun Woodward Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland 4:05 pm, 23rd May 2011

Rosemary Nelson was a prominent and diligent human rights lawyer who worked hard to protect the rights of her clients. Rosemary Nelson was also a mother, a wife, a daughter, a sister and a friend to many. She was killed by a loyalist paramilitary group shortly after midday on 15 March 1999. I join others in this House in offering my deepest sympathy to her family and her friends.

Today we have the final determinations of the inquiry. I thank the Secretary of State for a copy of his statement on those determinations and an advance opportunity to read the inquiry report. I also pay tribute to the inquiry chairman, Sir Michael Morland, to his panel members, and to the supporting Law Officers and officials.

The Secretary of State and I have both read the conclusion of the inquiry report, but I am afraid that I am unable to draw the same comfort about the findings and implications as he has done in his statement. The inquiry raises very serious issues about the police and about the Northern Ireland Office. In recognising this inquiry’s criticisms about policing, the inquiry does not take away our profound admiration for the outstanding courage and bravery of the men and women of the police family—and that of course includes the RUC—and of the Northern Ireland Office, at which I have had the privilege to be Secretary of State. I record again my thanks for the outstanding professionalism and fairness with which it was my experience to work at first hand.

However, this inquiry makes uncomfortable reading for both agencies. These agencies have undoubtedly, by what they have done, ensured that many lives have been protected from terrorist target. Indeed, we will never know just how many people might have been killed or how many people alive today were targets. However, we can be grateful to these agencies and at the same time set apart wrongdoing and failings. What is clear is that in the case of Rosemary Nelson, her death was not inevitable. The Secretary of State quoted from the report:

“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”.

Well, that reduction was not reasonable. The risk could have been reduced, and it was not reduced. There were failings.

It is important to separate out the investigation into Mrs Nelson’s murder, which the inquiry described as “exhaustive, energetic and enterprising”, although

“not perfect in every respect”,

and, equally importantly, the fact that the inquiry found “no evidence of any” organisations of the state attempting

“to obstruct the investigation of the murder”.

We can distinguish this from the failure of measures to protect her life which brought about her murder. Here we have very uncomfortable reading—more uncomfortable than I think the Secretary of State recognises. It is uncomfortable for the RUC and the NIO of that time. Having reached that view, questions should also be asked about the process of threat assessments even today.

The report disturbs me. Given what was known, why was Rosemary Nelson not protected? That is our question. The report states:

“She was a very public figure and thence an obvious trophy target.”

The inquiry concluded:

“Any reasonable, thorough and objective assessment could only have reached the conclusion that general intelligence, circumstances and recent events indicated that Rosemary Nelson was at significant risk.”

On the RUC, the inquiry found that “management negligently failed”, that “local RUC management failed”, that there was

“no analysis or evaluation of intelligence in relation to Rosemary Nelson”,

and that there was

“corporate failure to warn Rosemary Nelson of her vulnerability.”

Of the NIO, the inquiry found that there were omissions rather than commission. The NIO did not press the RUC hard enough for full replies on Mrs Nelson’s security, it did not press the police on disparities between what the NIO was being told about the threat and what the RUC had concluded in its threat assessments, and it was too mechanistic. Crucially, the inquiry says of the NIO that

“there is no evidence of any internal policy discussion about the treatment of defence lawyers in general or Rosemary Nelson in particular.”

All this taken together is damning. As the inquiry concludes:

“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.”

It continues:

“If Rosemary Nelson had been given advice about her safety and offered security measures, then assuming she accepted such advice and security measures, the risk to her life and her vulnerability would have been reduced.”

A worrying feature of the report is the incompleteness, or what some might see as evasiveness, in giving proper answers to reasonable questions from the inquiry. The inquiry states that it was not told that special branch

“did not maintain a paper file on Rosemary Nelson”.

Indeed, when Colin Port, who led the investigation into the murder asked about that,

“he was given an incomplete answer, and as regards whether Rosemary Nelson had an SB number, an incorrect one.”

In fact, the inquiry found that Mrs Nelson had not one number, but two. It was told that if she had had a special branch number, a special branch file would most likely have been created. The inquiry generously says:

“We cannot exclude the possibility that a paper file on Rosemary Nelson did at one time exist, but was lost or destroyed.”

It beggars belief, given that no one has yet been convicted of Mrs Nelson’s murder, that files of the state could have been allowed to be destroyed or lost during an ongoing murder investigation. That matters, because it is clear that specific views were formed by police officers that would undoubtedly have added to the risks to Mrs Nelson had they reached wider circulation.

The report needs to be read carefully. The inquiry found—you will be worried by this, Mr Speaker—that special branch in the south region, in the preparation for an application for a warrant to be signed by the Secretary of State, but which was not ultimately authorised, said of Mrs Nelson and the Provisional IRA that

“she openly supports their cause and intelligence states she has flouted the law”,

and that

“Nelson uses her legal training to assist PIRA in every way she can and it is clear Nelson is a dedicated Republican”.

That is why the conclusions of the report are so disturbing.

We may never be sure of the specific consequences of these failings. However, the inquiry states that there was an incident of abuse and assault on Mrs Nelson by members of the RUC, that there was a

“leakage of intelligence which we believe found its way outside the RUC.”

It states that the leakage and threatening remarks

“would have had the subsequent effect of legitimising her as a target in the eyes of Loyalist terrorists.”