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Rosemary Nelson Inquiry Report

Volume 528: debated on Monday 23 May 2011

With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the report into the death of Rosemary Nelson, which is being published this afternoon. Mrs Nelson, a solicitor, was murdered close to her home in Lurgan, County Armagh, on 15 March 1999 when a bomb attached to her car exploded. Responsibility for the murder was claimed by the so-called “loyalist” paramilitary group, the Red Hand Defenders.

I will first set out the report’s main conclusions before moving on to outline its findings on the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the Northern Ireland Office and the murder investigation. I will also set out the context in which this tragic event happened. The inquiry was established by the previous Government and was asked to determine

“whether any wrongful act or omission by or within the Royal Ulster Constabulary, Northern Ireland Office, Army or other state agency facilitated her death or obstructed the investigation of it, or whether attempts were made to do so; whether any such act or omission was intentional or negligent; whether the investigation of her death was carried out with due diligence; and to make recommendations.”

I would like to put on the record my thanks to Sir Michael Morland and his fellow panel members Dame Valerie Strachan and Sir Anthony Burden for their work. They have produced a detailed account of the circumstances surrounding this despicable and cowardly murder. This is a lengthy report that has cost £46.5 million and taken six years to complete. I am sure that the whole House will want to join me in hoping that it brings a measure of resolution to Rosemary Nelson’s family.

The report finds that

“There is no evidence of any act by or within any of the state agencies we have examined (the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the Northern Ireland Office, the Army or the Security Service) which directly facilitated Rosemary Nelson’s murder”.

The report goes on to say that

“we cannot exclude the possibility of a rogue member or members of the RUC or the Army in some way assisting the murderers to target Rosemary Nelson”,

although the panel does not provide specific evidence on this.

Those who are looking for evidence that the state conspired in or planned the death of Rosemary Nelson will not find it in this report. It does say that

“there were omissions by state agencies, which rendered Rosemary Nelson more at risk and more vulnerable; 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”.

The report does however recognise that

“There is nothing that any organisation can do that will infallibly prevent a murder. What can be reasonably looked for is a reduction in the risk”.

I am profoundly sorry that omissions by the state rendered Rosemary Nelson more at risk and more vulnerable. It is also deeply regrettable that, despite a very thorough police investigation, no one has been charged for this terrible crime.

On the investigation into the murder, which was led by a senior police officer from outside Northern Ireland, the report describes it as “exhaustive, energetic and enterprising”, concluding that

“there is no evidence of any deliberate attempt by any of the organs of the state corporately to obstruct the investigation”.

On the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the panel finds that

“some members of the RUC publicly abused and assaulted Rosemary Nelson on the Garvaghy Road in Portadown in 1997, having the effect of legitimising her as a target.”

The report states that

“we believe that there was some leakage of intelligence which we believe found its way outside the RUC”;


“the leakage increased the danger to Rosemary Nelson’s life”;

and that

“some members of the RUC made abusive and/or threatening remarks about Rosemary Nelson to her clients.”

In addition, the report states that

“in assessing whether or not Rosemary Nelson’s life was at risk, RUC Special Branch failed to take into account all the intelligence and the open information available to them…RUC management negligently failed to intervene to prevent their officers from uttering abuse and threats to defence solicitors, including Rosemary Nelson…Local RUC management failed to follow through promised action to pay special attention to Rosemary Nelson’s office and home addresses…there was no analysis or evaluation of intelligence relevant to Rosemary Nelson…there was a corporate failure by the RUC to warn Rosemary Nelson of her vulnerability and offer her security advice”.

In relation to the Northern Ireland Office, the report concludes that

“the NIO did not press the RUC hard enough for full replies to their questions concerning Rosemary Nelson's personal security…the NIO should have proactively questioned the RUC as to what factors were considered in producing a threat assessment…the NIO dealt in a mechanistic way with correspondence from Non-Governmental Organisations raising concerns about Rosemary Nelson's safety.”

The panel, in its findings relating to the accusations of obstruction by the state in the murder investigation, identifies:

“Special Branch gave levels of information unprecedented in the history of the RUC to the Murder Investigation Team”.

The panel also finds that the investigation team had wide-ranging terms of reference and was generously resourced, but that special branch co-operation was incomplete. Special branch was, it states,

“over-possessive about their intelligence…unjustifiably resentful and defensive about any enquiry which they interpreted as treating them as potential suspects…omitted to disclose all items of relevant intelligence”.

The panel concludes, however, that

“in the main, the investigation was carried out to a high standard, in very difficult conditions”,

and says:

“Overall, the investigation of the murder was carried out with due diligence”.

The panel has chosen not to make any recommendations, pointing to

“fundamental changes to the organisations that we have been examining and to the context within which they worked”.

In particular, the panel notes:

“The Royal Ulster Constabulary has now been replaced by the PSNI, on the lines envisaged by the Patten Commission. Many of the reforms were first proposed, and subsequently implemented, by Sir Ronnie Flanagan…Complaints against the police are now investigated by the independent Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland, so the PSNI is not in the position of having to investigate complaints about its own officers…After the murder of Rosemary Nelson, the Key Persons Protection Scheme was amended: defence solicitors were included among those who could qualify for the scheme”.

The report concludes that

“we consider that these changes effectively deal with the systemic problems that we saw in the way that the organisations operated”.

The three panel members say in their foreword:

“We recognise that the context in which these events happened was extraordinarily difficult. We do not underestimate the problems and personal danger faced by the agencies and individuals whose work we have been examining. For example, during the Troubles, over 300 RUC officers lost their lives and over 7000 were injured; over 700 British military personnel were killed and over 6000 were injured”.

At times, such personnel stood quite literally between the rule of law and the descent into anarchy. All of us owe them an immense debt of gratitude, and that is something that this Government will never forget.

The report does make criticisms of the RUC, and we should not seek to gloss over them. But it would be wrong for the criticisms in the report to be used in any way to denigrate the overall record, courage and sacrifice of the RUC. Despite the enormous progress heralded by the agreement, Northern Ireland was still emerging from 30 years of terrorist violence in 1999. With both loyalist and republican dissidents continuing to carry out attacks, the security situation remained dangerous. As the report says,

“there were violent groups who were implacably opposed to the Peace Process who were prepared to commit sectarian murder”.

In conclusion, it is clear that just as Lord Saville found no evidence of a conspiracy by the British state, and just as Lord MacLean found no evidence of state collusion in the murder of Billy Wright, so this panel finds no evidence of any act by the state which directly facilitated Rosemary Nelson’s murder.

This report is a detailed and authoritative account of the circumstances surrounding Rosemary Nelson’s horrific death. Politically motivated violence can never be justified. The whole House will wish to join me in condemning her vile murder and also extending our deepest sympathies to her family. I commend this statement to the House.

Rosemary Nelson was a prominent and diligent human rights lawyer who worked hard to protect the rights of her clients. Rosemary Nelson was also a mother, a wife, a daughter, a sister and a friend to many. She was killed by a loyalist paramilitary group shortly after midday on 15 March 1999. I join others in this House in offering my deepest sympathy to her family and her friends.

Today we have the final determinations of the inquiry. I thank the Secretary of State for a copy of his statement on those determinations and an advance opportunity to read the inquiry report. I also pay tribute to the inquiry chairman, Sir Michael Morland, to his panel members, and to the supporting Law Officers and officials.

The Secretary of State and I have both read the conclusion of the inquiry report, but I am afraid that I am unable to draw the same comfort about the findings and implications as he has done in his statement. The inquiry raises very serious issues about the police and about the Northern Ireland Office. In recognising this inquiry’s criticisms about policing, the inquiry does not take away our profound admiration for the outstanding courage and bravery of the men and women of the police family—and that of course includes the RUC—and of the Northern Ireland Office, at which I have had the privilege to be Secretary of State. I record again my thanks for the outstanding professionalism and fairness with which it was my experience to work at first hand.

However, this inquiry makes uncomfortable reading for both agencies. These agencies have undoubtedly, by what they have done, ensured that many lives have been protected from terrorist target. Indeed, we will never know just how many people might have been killed or how many people alive today were targets. However, we can be grateful to these agencies and at the same time set apart wrongdoing and failings. What is clear is that in the case of Rosemary Nelson, her death was not inevitable. The Secretary of State quoted from the report:

“There is nothing that any organisation can do that will infallibly prevent a murder. What can be reasonably looked for is a reduction in the risk”.

Well, that reduction was not reasonable. The risk could have been reduced, and it was not reduced. There were failings.

It is important to separate out the investigation into Mrs Nelson’s murder, which the inquiry described as “exhaustive, energetic and enterprising”, although

“not perfect in every respect”,

and, equally importantly, the fact that the inquiry found “no evidence of any” organisations of the state attempting

“to obstruct the investigation of the murder”.

We can distinguish this from the failure of measures to protect her life which brought about her murder. Here we have very uncomfortable reading—more uncomfortable than I think the Secretary of State recognises. It is uncomfortable for the RUC and the NIO of that time. Having reached that view, questions should also be asked about the process of threat assessments even today.

The report disturbs me. Given what was known, why was Rosemary Nelson not protected? That is our question. The report states:

“She was a very public figure and thence an obvious trophy target.”

The inquiry concluded:

“Any reasonable, thorough and objective assessment could only have reached the conclusion that general intelligence, circumstances and recent events indicated that Rosemary Nelson was at significant risk.”

On the RUC, the inquiry found that “management negligently failed”, that “local RUC management failed”, that there was

“no analysis or evaluation of intelligence in relation to Rosemary Nelson”,

and that there was

“corporate failure to warn Rosemary Nelson of her vulnerability.”

Of the NIO, the inquiry found that there were omissions rather than commission. The NIO did not press the RUC hard enough for full replies on Mrs Nelson’s security, it did not press the police on disparities between what the NIO was being told about the threat and what the RUC had concluded in its threat assessments, and it was too mechanistic. Crucially, the inquiry says of the NIO that

“there is no evidence of any internal policy discussion about the treatment of defence lawyers in general or Rosemary Nelson in particular.”

All this taken together is damning. As the inquiry concludes:

“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.”

It continues:

“If Rosemary Nelson had been given advice about her safety and offered security measures, then assuming she accepted such advice and security measures, the risk to her life and her vulnerability would have been reduced.”

A worrying feature of the report is the incompleteness, or what some might see as evasiveness, in giving proper answers to reasonable questions from the inquiry. The inquiry states that it was not told that special branch

“did not maintain a paper file on Rosemary Nelson”.

Indeed, when Colin Port, who led the investigation into the murder asked about that,

“he was given an incomplete answer, and as regards whether Rosemary Nelson had an SB number, an incorrect one.”

In fact, the inquiry found that Mrs Nelson had not one number, but two. It was told that if she had had a special branch number, a special branch file would most likely have been created. The inquiry generously says:

“We cannot exclude the possibility that a paper file on Rosemary Nelson did at one time exist, but was lost or destroyed.”

It beggars belief, given that no one has yet been convicted of Mrs Nelson’s murder, that files of the state could have been allowed to be destroyed or lost during an ongoing murder investigation. That matters, because it is clear that specific views were formed by police officers that would undoubtedly have added to the risks to Mrs Nelson had they reached wider circulation.

The report needs to be read carefully. The inquiry found—you will be worried by this, Mr Speaker—that special branch in the south region, in the preparation for an application for a warrant to be signed by the Secretary of State, but which was not ultimately authorised, said of Mrs Nelson and the Provisional IRA that

“she openly supports their cause and intelligence states she has flouted the law”,

and that

“Nelson uses her legal training to assist PIRA in every way she can and it is clear Nelson is a dedicated Republican”.

That is why the conclusions of the report are so disturbing.

We may never be sure of the specific consequences of these failings. However, the inquiry states that there was an incident of abuse and assault on Mrs Nelson by members of the RUC, that there was a

“leakage of intelligence which we believe found its way outside the RUC.”

It states that the leakage and threatening remarks

“would have had the subsequent effect of legitimising her as a target in the eyes of Loyalist terrorists.”

Order. I am loth on a matter of enormous importance and sensitivity to interrupt the right hon. Gentleman, but he has substantially exceeded his allotted time already. I know that he will bring his remarks to a speedy close.

I will, Mr Speaker.

The question that the Secretary of State must address is whether those acts of omission, negligence, failure and prejudice and a mechanistic Northern Ireland Office mean that we are in a very different position from the conclusion of the Wright inquiry, contrary to his statement today. I urge him to examine Justice Cory’s original proposals for the inquiries. Collusion is not just a matter of commission; it may also be an issue of omission. This does not prove collusion, but today the Secretary of State has been too hasty in his dismissal.

I have to say that I regret the shadow Secretary of State’s tone. I made it quite clear in my statement that there were criticisms of state agencies, and on his basic question—if there was a question—of why Mrs Nelson was not protected, I made it quite clear that there were analyses of her security status by the RUC and she was twice deemed not to be at risk. However, the key point is that she did not ask for protection.

It is not for me, who read the report overnight, or the right hon. Gentleman, who has had a shorter time than I had to read it, to second-guess this enormous work. What comes out quite clearly from this very lengthy report is that there were omissions, and that if they had not happened, the risk to Mrs Nelson would have been reduced. However, the report is quite clear that, sadly:

“There is nothing that any organisation can do that will infallibly prevent a murder. What can be reasonably looked for is a reduction in the risk.”

It is the fact that we did not reduce the risk—his Government was in charge at the time—for which I have apologised on behalf of the British state.

May I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of the report and his statement? Does he agree that anybody who has had the privilege of meeting the excellent police officers who protect people in Northern Ireland against vicious terrorist attacks will know that they are the most professional and dedicated people anybody could ever wish to see?

With regard to the criticisms of the RUC, is the Secretary of State now satisfied as far as he can be that measures are in place for anybody who might be perceived to be in danger in Northern Ireland, given the worrying terrorist threat that still exists?

I am very grateful to the Chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee for the tone of his question. As the report makes quite clear, all the main agencies have now been changed. We are confident that the home protection scheme offers a completely different type of protection from that described in the report.

I vividly recall the tragic death of Mrs Nelson, and indeed attending her funeral. It fell upon me, some years later, to set up this inquiry. The Secretary of State and my right hon. Friend the Member for St Helens South and Whiston (Mr Woodward) were right to praise the police service in Northern Ireland for all the great work that it does, but the report is a sorry and tragic one. Does the Secretary of State not agree that ultimately, the state simply did not protect Mrs Nelson enough, and that we must learn lessons from that? The acts of omission that occurred were tragic, and they should never, ever occur again.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his question, and I pay tribute to him for his service as Secretary of State. He is absolutely right that the report makes it quite clear that there were omissions, and that if the Northern Ireland Office or the RUC had done certain things, the risk would have been reduced. However, it was also incumbent on Mrs Nelson to accept security advice at the time and ask for security help. I made it clear in my statement that I regret that those omissions meant that the risk was not reduced, but we have to face the fact that under the circumstances, it was impossible to eliminate the risk.

May I associate myself with both the tone and the content of the Secretary of State’s comments, and with the congratulations that both he and the shadow Secretary of State have given to the Royal Ulster Constabulary?

To follow on from the last question, can the Secretary of State assure us that the current scheme for protecting those who are vulnerable in a similar way to Rosemary Nelson extends both north and south of the border?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the question, but we have jurisdiction in Northern Ireland and not in southern Ireland.

I thank the Secretary of State for an advance copy of his report. Having known Rosemary Nelson when we were both students at Queen’s university, Belfast in the mid-1970s, I find this report very disturbing indeed. In particular, it states that

“we cannot exclude the possibility of a rogue member or members of the RUC or the Army in some way assisting the murderers to target Rosemary Nelson”.

Does the Secretary of State not agree that that is tantamount to collusion between loyalist paramilitaries and members of the then security services? Will he provide an assurance to Members of this House and to Rosemary’s family that all efforts will be made to pursue those who were responsible for this terrible murder, and that they will be held accountable in the due process of the law as quickly and expeditiously as possible?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question, but I must repeat what the report said. This 500-page report took six years and cost £46.5 million, and was conducted by three eminent panellists. They conclude:

“There is no evidence of any act by or within any of the state agencies we have examined (the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the Northern Ireland Office, the Army or the Security Service) which directly facilitated Rosemary Nelson’s murder”.

The report makes no recommendations such as the hon. Lady suggests.

I agree with the content of the Secretary of State’s statement, and I support his tone—it was extremely appropriate that he spoke in such a way. I do not excuse in any way anybody who did a wrong thing, but I served with members of the RUC—they were extremely brave individuals in their commitment to the service, both on and off duty. Does he agree that the PSNI is a very different creature to the policing arrangements of 1999, and that we, and people on both sides of the community, should take comfort in that?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I paid full tribute to the RUC in my statement, but we do the RUC no favours by glossing over any failings. The report makes trenchant criticisms of those failings, but my hon. Friend is right that policing is quite different today. It has a much broader base of support, and is responsible to a locally elected Minister and Policing Board. That is why the report makes no specific recommendations.

This murder took place in my constituency. Today we have the report, which shows no evidence of collusion in relation to that murder. However, in the same area, 18 RUC officers were butchered by the Provisional IRA. We have had Teebane, La Mon and numerous other atrocities in Northern Ireland. We hear on the rumour mill that another inquiry—into Pat Finucane—could be announced. If so, will the Secretary of State also ensure an inquiry into the 18 deaths of RUC officers that occurred at La Mon and into other atrocities, in the interests of equality?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question. I am fully conscious of the tragedies in his constituency and the area where he lives. In June 1997, very shortly before the events dealt with in the report, Constables Johnston and Graham were murdered in Lurgan. On the Finucane inquiry, I made a written statement to the House in November, and there was an extended period of reflection while we took in representations. I shall make an announcement soon.

I respect the Secretary of State’s apology. Clearly the Government, to some degree, failed to protect one of our citizens, so it is only right that they apologise. It was the right decision, and I respect the tenor of his apology. It was a desperate time, and Rosemary Nelson’s murder was a desperate act. However, will he give an assurance that the economic cuts faced by Northern Ireland will have no negative impact on the key persons protection scheme? It has been amended and improved since Rosemary Nelson’s desperate murder, but it is vital that it is maintained.

The KPPS has been replaced by the home protection scheme, which is now administered by my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, who works diligently on this and assesses each case with great care. I am surprised that my hon. Friend used the word “cuts”, because this time last year we negotiated with the Treasury an extra £50 million, and since then we have negotiated a further £200 million. The Government have promised to stand by Northern Ireland and do what is necessary to bear down on the current security threat.

I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of the report, and for his measured and balanced statement. Rosemary Nelson’s murder was a brutal and callous act, and our thoughts and prayers are with her family, friends and colleagues on the release of this sobering report. My thoughts are also with the many other victims and survivors of the troubles in Northern Ireland who fear they will never have justice or even the truth about the circumstances surrounding their own situations. Does he agree that we need an inclusive and comprehensive mechanism to deal with the past and its legacy so that we can build a more stable future for Northern Ireland?

I am grateful for the tone of the hon. Lady’s question, which I entirely endorse. One of the other major changes, which is not mentioned in the report, is the establishment of the Historical Enquiries Team, which is looking methodically at the 3,268 cases in which people tragically lost their lives leading up to the agreement. That forms a good basis for working on the terrible losses of the past. She knows that I am considering a range of options and talking to a wide number of people. We will bring forward proposals when we think we can achieve some sort of consensus, but she knows more than anyone how difficult that will be.

The Secretary of State’s statement identified failures by individuals in the RUC who intimidated and harassed Mrs Nelson or leaked information, and obviously there were failures by some civil servants in not pressing the RUC. Will he ask his permanent secretary to take disciplinary action against any of those civil servants still working in the Northern Ireland Office, and will he confirm whether all the individuals in the RUC whom the panel identified as having committed this harassment or leaked this information have now left the PSNI?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question and suggest that he read the report, which does not make such recommendations.