The inquiry is being held under the Police Act which gives the British government significant powers to restrict publication of sensitive evidence and the right to decide if a final report is published.
The dead woman’s family, however, are cooperating with the inquiry and political parties are watching to see if the British government uses its powers to restrict its investigations.
The inquiry, which is likely to last over a year and call over 100 witnesses, will adjourn immediately after opening to begin behind-the-scenes collating of evidence including lists of witnesses.
Nelson, who gave evidence to a Congressional hearing into fears she would murdered, was inspired in her work by the example of slain Belfast lawyer Pat Finucane. She attended his funeral but was later, like him, murdered after pursuing high-profile human rights cases.
A UDA gang that allegedly included two police informers and a serving British soldier murdered her by placing a booby-trap bomb under her car in Lurgan on March 15, 1999. Her youngest daughter, Sarah, heard the explosion from her nearby schoolyard. Nelson survived over two hours with extensive injuries to her legs and lower body.
A retired British judge, Sir Michael Morland, chairing the three-strong panel examining alleged security force collusion, said: “The inquiry seeks to find out the truth. We are here to work with fairness, thoroughness and impartiality.”
The British government agreed to set up the inquiry following the recommendations of Canadian Judge Peter Cory. He was appointed in 2001 and has delivered six reports on a total of eight killings on both sides of the border.
He has also called for tribunals into Finucane’s murder, the shooting in prison of loyalist paramilitary chief Billy Wright, and the fatal attack on Catholic man Robert Hamill.
The Irish government has already agreed to hold an inquiry into alleged Garda collusion in the IRA murders of two senior RUC officers, Bob Buchanan and Harry Breen, in 1989.
When the Nelson hearing begins on Tuesday, Morland and his colleagues — ex-Chief Constable of South Wales Sir Anthony Burden and Dame Valerie Strachan, former chair of the Board of Customs and Excise — will examine allegations that police ignored death threats against her.
British Northern Ireland Secretary Paul Murphy has extended the inquiry’s terms of reference to include the British army and government agencies.
Several security and political figures are expected to called as witnesses, including a former chief constable of the RUC, Sir Ronnie Flanagan, and former Northern Secretary Mo Mowlam.
Human rights’ groups repeatedly wrote to both, warning that police officers had allegedly made death threats against Nelson and that her life was in danger. Her friends and family say neither the police nor British government took any steps to protect her.
British government officials, British-Irish Rights Watch, and the North’s leading human rights’ group, the Committee on the Administration of Justice, are attending the hearings.
The British-Irish Rights’ Watch director, Jane Winter, said Flanagan had been dismissive when she wrote to him highlighting the dangers Nelson faced in her daily work.
The inquiry has the power to subpoena witnesses and compel the disclosure of documents. Bar exceptional circumstances, proceedings should be held in public, but there are still concerns about how it will develop.
Belfast solicitor P_draig