Category: Archive

A pall is cast over over celebrations

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Susan Falvella-Garraty and Ray O’Hanlon

WASHINGTON, D.C. — What was supposed to be a celebration of and boost for the efforts for peace in Northern Ireland turned decidedly more somber as politicians assembled in Washington for St. Patrick’s Day.

The murder of Belfast human rights lawyer Rosemary Nelson cast a shadow over a week that was already replete with political urgency.

White House spokesman Joe Lockhart read a statement by President Clinton about the car bombing to reporters Monday.

"The killing today of Rosemary Nelson, a leading human-rights lawyer in Northern Ireland, was a despicable and cowardly act by the enemies of peace. Our deepest sympathies go out to her friends and family," Lockhart said.

"It is long past time for the bloodshed to end once and for all. We urge all the proponents for peace to unite to condemn this act and reject violence. We urge the parties to move forward with implementing the Good Friday accord," he said.

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Privately White House aides said the killing rocked those busily preparing for multiple meetings between the president and assembled Irish politicians.

"It’s a reminder of the people out there that have yet to give up on the old ways," a White House official said.

"When we heard she had died it was very sobering and gave us a sickening feeling," the official said.

Clinton’s advisors said it points to the necessity that decommissioning needs to take place not just by the IRA, but by loyalist terrorist organizations as well.

"It adds a very somber note to what was going to be a festive occasion. It’s a reminder of what’s at stake. We felt a little bit like when the Omagh bombing took place. It’s not an abstract; it’s flesh and blood," said the official.

At a press conference Monday, U.S. Commerce Secretary William Daley was joined by UUP leader David Trimble and his deputy in the Northern Ireland Assembly, Seamus Mallon. They were there to announce new U.S. corporate investment in Northern Ireland.

When questioned by reporters about the bombing, Trimble said: "We all knew that the agreement was not going to be a magic wand and . . . that there are elements opposed to it. These elements will not succeed.

"The peace process is robust enough to withstand it," said Trimble, who represents the area in Lurgan where the bombing took place. Trimble had refused to meet with Rosemary Nelson repeatedly when she worked on behalf of the Garvaghy Road Residents Association.

"In its murderous grotesque way it shows how important the peace process is and how we must ensure that nothing is allowed to damage that process," Mallon told reporters.

The condemnation at the press conference was just a reflection of the angry mood that spanned the U.S. and Irish America, from political leaders to lobby groups and human rights organizations.

In New York, Comptroller Alan Hevesi said that Nelson’s murder was clearly a crime against peace. "Its timing was no accident," he said.

City Council Speaker Peter Vallone described Nelson’s death as a terrible loss for the peace process. "This brave civil rights leader must not die in vain.

AOH national president Thomas Gilligan pointed to what he charged was a "sickening collusion between loyalist thugs and security forces."

Fr. Sean McManus of the Irish National Caucus said Irish Americans were "shocked and saddened" by the murder.

The Irish Parades Emergency Committee said it was saddened and outraged. Nelson, the committee said, had been targeted "because of her eloquent defense of nationalists along the Garvaghy road, Lurgan and across the North.

The Brehon Law Society said it grieved deeply "for our sister Rosemary Nelson."

The society called for "a truly independent inquiry into her killing and into that of human rights lawyer Patrick Finucane, assassinated 10 years ago. . . . We ask that President Clinton and Taoiseach Bertie Ahern join in this demand."

Irish American Unity Conference National President Andy Somers said in a statement that "the military establishment must be among the suspects."

The Lawyers Alliance and U.S. Voice for Human Rights, in a joint statement, expressed shock and sorrow. Jean Forest of U.S. Voice said she had personally "begged" RUC Chief Constable Ronnie Flanagan to protect Nelson.

Ed Lynch of the Alliance said there was a need for investigators from outside Ireland.

"The Irish American community is stunned," said Noraid’s national chairman, Paul Doris. "All we’ve heard for months and months is that the IRA needs to give up its weapons before Sinn Féin can enter the executive. The reality is that some people are more worried about the threat of violence than actual violence. Loyalist death squads have gone on murdering Catholics while the IRA guns have been silent for 20 months."

Independent probe sought

Americans for a New Irish Agenda expressed its "condemnation and abhorrence" at the "brutal murder" of Nelson.

ANIA also called for an investigation "by a police force other than the RUC." This call was echoed by a number of human rights groups including Amnesty International, Human rights Watch, The Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, the Committee on the Administration of Justice, British/Irish Rights Watch and the Irish Council on Civil Liberties.

Amnesty International said it was "shocked and deeply saddened" by Nelson’s death. Amnesty pointed to the 1998 report by the U.N. special rapporteur, Param Cumaraswamy, that urged protection for solicitors or barristers in Northern Ireland who received threats.

Nelson herself testified in Washington last September. She was there to discuss the report on the independence of judges and lawyers in Northern Ireland prepared by Cumaraswamy.

Cumaraswamy issued a statement saying he was saddened by Nelson’s death. He called for "an independent and impartial commission of inquiry."

The focus of the Washington hearing, before the Chris Smith-chaired Subcommittee on Human Rights, was on intimidation of lawyers representing primarily nationalist suspects and the 1989 murder of solicitor Patrick Finucane.

"There is prima facie evidence to support the contention of some security force involvement," in Patrick Finucane’s murder, Cumaraswamy told the congressional panel at the time.

Nelson herself spoke of the need for a commission to investigate harassment of attorneys representing detainees. She spoke personally about her and her family’s safety. She told of the verbal and physical abuse she had received by members of the RUC. In almost a kindly air, she did plead even their case in a way. She explained: "They have a tendency to identify me with my clients," she said. "This has led to accusations by RUC officers that I have been involved in paramilitary activity and I deeply and bitterly resent this."

She told the committee that the death threats she received were not limited to Unionist paramilitary organizations. They also came from the RUC.

"All of these threats have been made to my clients in my absence because lawyers in Northern Ireland are routinely and always excluded from interviews with clients in holding centers," she testified.

Congressman Smith, a New Jersey Republican, told Nelson during the hearing that any protection for her in the wake of such death threats could not come from the RUC, since that would be like sending "the fox to protect the hen house."

In a statement following Nelson’s murder, Smith said the Blair government must have an outside entity investigate the killing. "They should follow every lead, even if it implicates security forces and the police," Smith said.

The chairman of the House International Relations Committee, Ben Gilman, concurred, saying that an investigation should be performed by someone outside the RUC.

"She was a courageous lawyer practicing her advocacy on behalf of those who needed, and were entitled to, legal counsel," Gilman said.

Meanwhile, leading Sinn Féin members Gerry Kelly and Bairbre de Brun, the party’s spokesperson for Policing and Justice, were flying back to Ireland to attend Nelson’s funeral on Thursday. Other Irish American activists and lawyers were also making plans to fly to the North.

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