Solicitor risked safety to speak out

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ALTHOUGH SHE worried about her security in an area regarded as one of the most bitterly divided even by Northern Ireland standards, Rosemary Nelson continued to maintain a high public profile.

The risks were obvious. She became closely identified with the nationalist community of Portadown's Garvaghy Road, which has been the subject of scores of loyalist demonstrations since the security forces stopped the Orange Order from marching along it last July.

In January, for example, she accompanied a delegation of local nationalists who met Tony Blair in Downing Street. She also acted for the family of Robert Hamill, who was kicked to death by loyalists several years ago in an incident which continues to attract political controversy.

Mrs Nelson also represented around 200 nationalists who have been seeking compensation from the Royal Ulster Constabulary over Drumcree-related incidents.

She often acted not just as a legal representative but as a public spokesperson for such causes. Just yesterday for example, the Belfast nationalist paper the Irish News featured comments by her in its lead story and in another article.

The front-page story revealed that Robert Hamill's sister would address a meeting in Belfast later this month together with Duwayne Brooks, who was with Stephen Lawrence when he was murdered in London. Mrs Nelson was quoted as saying: "The full details of the Hamill case are even more horrific than the facts of the Lawrence case. He was targeted because he was a Catholic. We are seeing racism here, racism dressed up as sectarianism."

In the other article she complained of what she said was a low level of arrests of Orange Order supporters in the continuing Drumcree protests. Quoting a parliamentary answer which said that 38 illegal Orange marches have taken place since June, she said: "The law has been flouted openly."

She added: "We have a nationalist community trapped, living in a village on the edge of a town. It is not about conflicting rights here, it is about the rule of law."

Such sentiments would not endear her to the Orange Order, or to the fringe loyalist organisations who have been prepared to use violence in support of what they view as the Orange right to march.

She was also by her own account highly unpopular with the police, whom she accused of assaulting her on a number of occasions. When a United Nations investigator put her allegations to the Government, the official reply was that she had made complaints but had not made herself available for interview to discuss them.

Most Northern Ireland solicitors put aside all thoughts of adopting crusading positions following the loyalist assassination of a prominent Catholic solicitor, Pat Finucane, in 1989. Since then most have stuck firmly to the technicalities of the law, eschewing public controversies and confining their activities to the strictly legal. Mrs Nelson was therefore highly unusual in being prepared to take issues into the public arena.