The Northern Ireland Office and the RUC landed in the dock yesterday in wake of investigation into killing of a County Armagh solicitor.

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An investigation into the killing of Lurgan solicitor Rosemary Nelson twelve years ago has put the NIO and the police on the back foot in Northern Ireland. Mrs Nelson was blown up in a car explosion on March 15 1999. Loyalists said they killed her.

There are two fundamentals stated in the Rosemary Nelson Inquiry Report into the killing of the law officer and mother of three.

1. ‘There was a corporate failure by the RUC to warn Rosemary Nelson of her vulnerability and offer her security advice’

2. ‘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.’

In this 500 pages plus report there are many deductions, suggestions, ifs buts, etc but the incontrovertible certainty with which Judge Morland and his team states the above speaks volumes about the ‘state’ approach to this ‘troublesome’ solicitor who built up a reputation representing anti state republicans.

Former Chief Constable Ronnie Flanagan is reported to have branded Rosemary Nelson ‘ an immoral woman’ in a conversation in August 1998 with the NIO Senior Director Belfast. The former Permanent Under- Secretary of the NIO also recalled an occasion when Ronnie Flanagan had commented on Rosemary Nelson. The report quotes him saying : ‘The first person actually to tell me that Rosemary Nelson had a closer than professional relationship with one of her clients , Colin Duffy, was Ronnie Flanagan. I don’t recall when he told me this ( although it was before her death) or where, but I do recall that when he told me I was slightly taken aback. It was a topic that we did not return to.’ When cross examined during the Nelson Inquiry Ronnie Flanagan said of what Joe Pilling claimed ” I have no recollection of having a discussion with Sir Jo Pilling about this matter. I did meet him on a weekly basis and we both attended the monthly SPM meetings with the Secretary of State, but I doubt that such a thing would have been raised at these meetings.”.

The Inquiry team in its report continues ‘ We believed the evidence of both the Senior Director and Sir Joseph Pilling , both of whom were able to place in context their evidence of these remarks having been made. Furthermore, the fact that Sir Joseph Pilling believed the source of the information to have been confidential is corroborated by a Security Service note concerning a telephone call between Sir Joseph Pilling and the Head of Assessments Group on 17 March 1999. This document, which is entitled ‘Subject: Rosemary Nelson and Colin Duffy,’ reads as follows: ‘1. PUS ( the Permanent Under -Secretary) contacted me ( at home) on 17 March to say that he was concerned about the possibility of the allegation that Nelson had had a sexual relationship with Colin Duffy breaking publicly. This could exacerbate the difficulties of the current situation and heap even more opprobrium on the RUC. I pointed out that there had been already some hints about the nature of the relationship in the local press.’. In essence Sir Michael Morland and his Inquiry team didn’t believe Ronnie Flanagan.

The Rosemary Nelson Inquiry says ‘ There is no evidence of any act by or within any of the state agencies we have examined ( The Royal Ulster Constabulary) the NIO, the Army or the Security Services which directly facilitated Rosemary Nelson’s murder.’ What is not in doubt is that Rosemary Nelson felt her life was potentially in danger. There are paper trails in NIO on Capitol Hill and from here to Timbuktu to back this up.

Chief Constable Matt Baggott when asked in wake of publication of the Rosemary Nelson Inquiry Report what was his response to the findings which said of the police in 1999 ‘there was a corporate failure by the RUC to warn Rosemary Nelson of her vulnerability and offer her security,’ said:
“I am very willing and open to apologise on behalf of the PSNI for any inadequacies identified and to say sorry to the Nelson family and friends.” The clarity with which the Chief Constable delivered these comments were in sharp contrast to the ‘spin’ promoted in the House of Commons. When I asked Matt Baggott whether his organisation has any responsibility for the safety and wellbeing of the individual known to be under threat again Mr Baggott cut to the chase. He said “we have very clear obligations under the Human Rights Act to make sure we do everything possible to protect people.”.
This means the then Chief Constable and the RUC of those years are banged to rights. The Report is very specific in saying ” there was a corporate failure by the RUC to warn Rosemary Nelson of her vulnerability and offer her security.” The Report very clearly underscores how the NIO and the police abdicated in affording Rosemary Nelson the appropriate security advice, whether she availed of that would have been her decision.

Owen Paterson argued the NIO and the RUC were guilty of ‘omission’as opposed to ‘commission.’ The tone of many remarks attributed to members of the security services speak volumes about the attitude to the County Armagh solicitor. Labelled ‘ an immoral woman’ by a very senior police officer accompanied by habitual threats by police officers questioning young men in detention centres, Rosemary Nelson was regularly met with what former Police Ombudsman Nuala O Loan called ‘ a pervasive hostility.’.

How one defines ‘collusion’ is open to interpretation. If the state systemically sits back and leaves an individual exposed to death threats and ultimately to death what does it matter how ‘collusion’ is defined?

It is something of a disappointment that the media fell for the Westminster ‘spin.’ This is a damning report of the then RUC and of some people at the helm in the NIO in those years.

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About Author

Eamonn Mallie

I am a regular contributor to discussion programmes on TV and radio both at home and abroad. An experienced political editor and author specialising in Politics, Security and 20th Century Art.


  1. Great article @EamonnMallie:twitter ,

    How illusive/elusive/allusive is this meaning of collusion! Kafka, Camus, Beckett et al would be truly proud. Would that we had never heard of the word “collusion” as many a complaint has been framed around it and failed because of its lack of reference. There is, of course, no legal definition for it set in stone and, whenever you do fulfil its terms, it becomes almost diaphanous. The authorities simply change its terms of reference. Campaigning families stand a better chance of hugging a Shade.
    As someone who has had to study black propaganda as an art form (with words as military weapons), the word “collusion” has always interested me. I have imagined that it was created in some information research department deep in the bowels of HQNI by an impossibly named Lt. Colonel called Tugwell or Renouf. If only we could find the policy document for its creation…