Rosemary is dead. Who will be next?

A year after the murder of Rosemary Nelson, lawyers in Northern Ireland still work in fear
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The Independent Online

It is chilling to hear Padraigan Drinan talking of how she believes her life is in danger. She is the lawyer who has taken over the work of solicitor Rosemary Nelson who was murdered little more than a year ago.

An uneasy feeling of déjà vu is only compounded by the decision of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Peter Mandelson, not to offer her police protection. Similar claims were made by Ms Nelson, but tragically they also fell on deaf ears.

Last week a spokeswoman for the Northern Ireland Office told The Independent that they were looking into new evidence submitted by Ms Drinan. In the absence of state protection, she makes her own arrangements. Prospective clients are now told that, as a condition of her taking on work, they must waive the duty confidentiality owed to a client. Should something happen to her, sensitive information is safe in the hands of a third party. She is living through what she calls her "risk period". The solicitor is in the process of gathering evidence and until it is all collected and passed on to some "secure authority" she believes that her life is at risk.

The human rights lawyer Rosemary Nelson, who was 40 and a mother of three, was killed by a car bomb outside her home in County Armagh in March 1999. A loyalist paramilitary group calling itself the Red Hand Defenders admitted to the bombing, and last month a man was charged with her murder.

It took Ms Drinan's six months to discover that her application for police protection had been rejected. The solicitor was judged sufficiently important to qualify for the RUC's key person protection scheme; however, in spite of three attempts made on her life over 12 years, she was held not to be under any "specific or significant personal threat from a terrorist organisation".

A disbelieving Ms Drinan told the press at the time of the decision: "It appears there is a difference between a threat and when the attack is carried out. In my case, on each occasion, there was no threat. It just happened."

Jane Winter, the director of the British Irish Rights Watch, is astonished at the government bureaucracy. Ms Drinan has recently taken on Rosemary Nelson's most contentious client, the Garvaghy Road Residents Coalition in Portadown. "The truth is that anybody with any common sense can see that somebody in her position is in a certain position of risk," she says. "I absolutely hope that we never see another lawyer murdered in Northern Ireland," she says. "But I do see that there are some parallels in the apparent indifference to Padraigan Drinan's request for assistance and those that Rosemary Nelson allowed to be made on her behalf which went completely unheeded."

British Irish Rights Watch has received complaints from lawyers on both sides of the sectarian divide about harassment over the 10 years it has been monitoring the safety of defence lawyers. She reckons that part of the RUC's modus operandi is "to try and make the suspect feel that nobody, not even their lawyer, can help them".

Ms Nelson had been subjected to many death threats and six weeks before she was killed she issued a writ against the RUC for an assault on her. In September 1998 she told the US Congress: "Another reason why RUC officers abuse me in this way is because they are unable to distinguish me as professional lawyer from the alleged crimes and causes of my clients".

Ms Drinan remembers her friend as "an ordinary conveyancing solicitor" acting in the interests of her clients.

Ms Nelson told the UN Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, Dato' Param Cumaraswamy, of her fears when they met months before she was killed. He delivered a report to the UN Commission on Human Rights in 1998 and claimed that "the RUC has engaged in activities which constitute intimidation, hindrance, harassment or improper interference" with lawyers. He also wrote to the government privately expressing concerns for the solicitor.

Rosemary Nelson used to call the UN official her "wee daddy", Ms Drinan recalls. "She felt safe with him because she thought he was going to protect her." She says affectionately that her friend could be considered "naïve" to believe that she was ever safe. However, if Rosemary Nelson was naïve, is Padraigan Drinan walking into trouble with her eyes open? Yes, she says. And what can be done to help her? "I think if it [the harassment] is state-sponsored - as I believe it to be - it is going to happen anyway," she says.

"When people die, they tend to create their own myths," Ms Drinan says. "But the thing about Rosemary was - I don't know what it was she had - but everybody remembered her. She got the best of everybody." The outrage at Rosemary Nelson's murder has led to calls for an independent inquiry from the United Nations, the US Congress, the European parliament, Amnesty International and professional bodies, including the Law Society and the International Bar Association. Eamann McMenamin is a partner at Belfast firm Madden & Finucane. Patrick Finucane, the human rights lawyer who set up the firm in the late Seventies, was murdered in his home by the Ulster Freedom Fighters 12 years ago. "We didn't think it could happen again, but now after Rosemary's death, we think it could happen to anybody," he says.

The campaign for an inquiry into the circumstances of Patrick Finucane's death has gained momentum over the intervening years. Two months ago Amnesty International said that it was its firm belief - "and one that the organisation has reiterated to the government on many occasions" - that a judicial inquiry was needed to get to the bottom of allegations of collusion between the para-militaries, the police and military intelligence agents.

Mr McMenamin says that Patrick Finucane was one of "a new breed of solicitors" who encouraged people to have faith in their solicitors and air grievances "through the courts and not on the streets".

The solicitor claims not to have "a republican bone in his body" and it is a frustration that his firm has become "stigmatised" by it's work with republican clients. "We love cases from both sides," he says, adding that he was "delighted" to be instructed by a Protestant clients who recently won £115,000 after he lost an eye from a stray plastic bullet in a riot.

Nonetheless, the perception remains that lawyers like Mr McMenamin are "provos in suits". He represented Sean Kelly, the reviled republican bomber who received nine life sentences for his role in the Shankill Road bombing which killed nine Protestants. The terrorist sustained massive injuries himself in the bomb. There was never a word spoken against the team of doctors who, "doing their professional job", fought to save his client's life. "I'm sure they didn't ask 'Which one was the bomber? We'll do him last'." But he was "castigated and looked upon with suspicion" for doing his job.

Three weeks before Patrick Finucane died, Douglas Hogg, the parliamentary under-secretary for the Home Office at the time, told the House of Commons that there were a number of solicitors in Northern Ireland "sympathetic to the cause of the Irish Republican Army". The words horrified already nervous defence solicitors. An outraged Seamus Mallon, now the deputy leader of the SDLP, told the House: "I have no doubt that there are lawyers walking the streets or driving the roads of the North of Ireland who have become targets of assassin's bullets as a result of the statement that has been made tonight."

Eamann McMenamin knows the speech off by heart. Lawyers have been walking those streets and driving those roads with that sense for a long time now, he says.