Rosemary Nelson, née Magee, obtains her law degree at Queens University Belfast. She works with other solicitors for a number of years before opening her own practice. She represents clients in a number of high-profile cases, including Michael Caraher, one of the South Armagh Snipers, as well as a republican paramilitary accused of killing two Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) officers. She also represents the Garvaghy Road Residents’ Coalition in nearby Portadown in the long-running Drumcree conflict against the Orange Order and RUC.
Nelson claims she has received death threats from members of the RUC as a result of her legal work. Some RUC officers make abusive and threatening remarks about her to her clients, which become publicly known. In 1998, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Solicitors, Param Cumaraswamy, notes these threats in his annual report, and states in a television interview that he believes her life could be in danger. He makes recommendations to the British government concerning threats from police against Solicitors, which are not acted upon. Later that year, Nelson testifies before a committee of the United States Congress investigating human rights in Northern Ireland, confirming that death threats have been made against her and her three children.
Nelson is assassinated, at the age of 40, by a car bomb outside her home in Lurgan on March 15, 1999. A loyalist paramilitary group calling itself the Red Hand Defenders claim responsibility for the killing. She is survived by her husband and their three children.
In 2004, the Cory Collusion Inquiry recommends that the UK Government hold an inquiry into the circumstances of Nelson’s death. She is posthumously awarded the Train Foundation‘s Civil Courage Prize, which recognises “extraordinary heroes of conscience.”
The resulting inquiry into her assassination opens at the Craigavon Civic Centre, Craigavon, County Armagh, in April 2005. In September 2006 the British Security Service MI5 announces it would be represented at the inquiry. This move provokes criticism from Nelson’s family, who reportedly express concerns that MI5 would remove sensitive or classified information.
The results of the inquiry are published on May 23, 2011. The inquiry finds no evidence that state agencies (the RUC, British Army and MI5) had “directly facilitated” her murder, but “could not exclude the possibility” that individual members had helped the perpetrators. It finds that state agencies had failed to protect her and that some RUC intelligence about her had been leaked. Both of these, it says, increased the danger to her life. The report also states that RUC officers had publicly abused and assaulted her in 1997, and made threatening remarks about her to her clients, which became publicly known. It concludes that this helped “legitimise her as a target in the eyes of loyalist terrorists.”