Threatened lawyer is denied RUC protection

The solicitor who has taken on the work of the murdered lawyer Rosemary Nelson has been refused police protection by Peter Mandelson despite claims that her life is in danger.

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland made the decision despite two attempts on the life of Padraigin Drinan, a Belfast solicitor who says her life was most recently threatened in 1997.

Ms Nelson, her friend and colleague, was killed in a car bomb explosion more than a year ago after she had repeatedly warned police her life was in danger from loyalist terrorist groups.

Ms Drinan is now representing many of the republican clients for whom Ms Nelson acted and has therefore taken on the same work that brought Mrs Nelson into conflict with the loyalist paramilitaries. But Ms Drinan has been told by the Northern Ireland Office that although she has been judged "important" enough to qualify for police protection she was not under any "specific or significant personal threat from a terrorist organisation".

Ms Drinan, who also acts for Ms Nelson's former client, the Garvaghy Road Residents' Association, has now given the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) details of three threats on her life made in the past 12 years. In 1988 her home was set on fire and her car booby-trapped. In 1993 a bombexplosion outside Belfast magistrates' court followed a terrorist warning to Ms Drinan to drop a rape case that implicated members of the Ulster Defence Association. Ms Drinan appeared in the case at the court on the day of the explosion.

In 1997 a loyalist procession marched to her house and stood outside in silence. Ms Drinan said: "I genuinely thought I was going to die." The solicitor said the RUC was ignoring her request for help, just as it had done more than a year earlier in the case of Ms Nelson, who worked in Portadown, 25 miles from Belfast.

Ms Nelson, a Roman Catholic who had three children, died outside her home in Lurgan, Co Armagh, on 15 March 1999. Her murder has become a cause célÿbre, with nationalists and republicans alleging collusion between the loyalist killers - claiming to be from the "Red Hand Defenders" - and the security forces.

Ms Nelson had repeatedly told the RUC that threats had been made against her life. Shortly before her death, shemet Tony Blair at Downing Street on behalf of the Garvaghy Road residents. During the meeting she informed Mr Blair of threats not only against her client but also of threats on her own life.

Under the Northern Ireland Key Person Protection Scheme, solicitors and others involved in high-profile work can apply to have a police presence at their home. The purpose of the scheme is to protect important individuals whose death from terrorist attack could undermine "the democratic framework of government". The RUC assesses the evidence of any threat.

A spokeswoman for the Northern Ireland Office said that Ms Drinan's application for police protection was first made last July. She said that the RUC was now looking at further evidence submitted by Ms Drinan, which would be passed on to Mr Mandelson. Ms Drinan said yesterday she did not hold out much hope of her request being granted.

Last year, a study by the International Commission of Jurists found lawyers in Northern Ireland were more likely to be subject to death threats and harassment than in any other part of the European Union.

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