By Ray O’Hanlon
A trans-Atlantic war of words is growing in the wake of a letter to the New York Times by the British ambassador to the United States concerning the murders of Northern Ireland lawyers Pat Finucane and Rosemary Nelson.
In the letter, Ambassador Christopher Meyer defended the actions of successive British governments both before and after the murders of the attorneys.
In the letter, published Monday as a response to an earlier Times editorial, Meyer stated that the British government had not ruled out calls for a public inquiry into both the Finucane and Nelson murders "but cannot accept such a call while criminal investigations are under way."
Meyer wrote that the Nelson investigation continued to employ 80 police officers and that 8,000 people had been interviewed and 24,000 documents seized.
But it was the ambassador’s final paragraph that quickly prompted criticism from within the North and Irish America.
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Meyer concluded his letter by stating: "It is not true that nothing was done about a request from a human rights group for protection of Ms. Nelson. The group was advised as to how she could apply for protection. She did not apply."
This contention was immediately disputed by Pádraigín Drinan, the Belfast solicitor who replaced Nelson as legal representative for the Garvaghy Road residents in Portadown after Nelson was killed in March 1999 by a bomb that had been planted under her car by loyalist paramilitaries.
Drinan said that Nelson had never refused protection and indeed had asked for "key-person protection" but had been refused on the grounds that she was not an elected politician and that her death would not lead to a serious threat to the administration of justice in Northern Ireland.
Key-person protection includes the installation of bulletproof glass and bombproof doors in an individual’s home. It also includes security lights and cameras outside the home, devices that would make the planting of a car bomb a more difficult proposition.
Drinan, too, was initially refused key-person protection but was eventually granted it after a flurry of protest and critical newspaper editorials.
Drinan said that requests for protection for Nelson had also been submitted "persistently" on her behalf by Brendan McKenna, the spokesman for the Garvaghy Road residents group.
She said that these requests were turned aside. However, at a "secret" meeting between McKenna and officials from the Northern Ireland Office, an offer of £20,000 was apparently placed on the table.
This money would have been paid through a charitable trust to the Garvaghy residents for use as they saw fit, and presumably for spending on security measures for individuals including Nelson.
However, Nelson apparently advised against accepting the offer on the grounds that it would potentially let the NIO and Royal Ulster Constabulary off the hook in the event of anyone being attacked and killed.
Nelson did have profound problems with any RUC role in her personal safety given that some of the many death threats against her had, by her own words to many, including members of the U.S. Congress, come from within the force itself.
"She did decline the idea of the RUC leading the investigation into threats against her on the grounds that threats were coming from within the RUC," Drinan said.
Ed Lynch, national coordinator of the U.S.-based Lawyers Alliance for Justice in Ireland, said that his group had "repeatedly" expressed concern over Nelson’s safety.
"The British allowed a climate to grow in which it was safe to threaten a human rights lawyer with death. I don’t know how the British ambassador can walk away from her death," Lynch said.
In the editorial that prompted Meyer’s response, the New York Times called for an independent judicial inquiry into the murders of both Pat Finucane — shot dead in his Belfast home in 1989 — and Rosemary Nelson.
The editorial followed a meeting in March between the Times editorial board and Finucane’s law partner, Peter Madden, and brother Martin Finucane. It pointed to "disturbing information" uncovered by journalists investigating Finucane’s murder.
"Agents of British Army and RUC intelligence have said that they participated in targeting and arranging Mr. Finucane’s murder. Credible witnesses have also said that the agents’ handlers knew a murder was coming and did nothing. The veracity of these claims must be tested by an independent public inquiry," the editorial stated.
With regard to the Nelson case, the editorial pointed to death threats from RUC officers leveled at the attorney
"The murder investigation, while led by a British police officer, has been run from the RUC station that employs the officers who allegedly threatened her. That has discouraged witnesses from coming forward."
Peter Madden and Pat Finucane’s widow, Geraldine, are due to visit New York this month and are scheduled to speak at an event hosted by the National Committee on American Foreign Policy in Manhattan on June 19.
Meanwhile, two men were detained for questioning in regard to Nelson’s murder Tuesday by the RUC.