Northern Ireland in the firing line

A fragile peace may have come to Northern Ireland, but its lawyers are still under fire, writes Marie Ryan. Marie Ryan is a freelance journalist. The murder of Belfast solicitor Pat Finucane, in 1989, by Ulster Defence Association gunmen sent a shock wave through the Northern Ireland lawyers defending clients detained on terrorism charges.

'His death delivered a very strong message to lawyers,' says solicitor Rosemary Nelson, who is in no doubt that it stopped some from taking on such cases.

Now, a United Nations Human Rights Commission report by special rapporteur Param Cumaraswamy has accused the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) of identifying lawyers with their clients' causes and has called for inquiries into the Finucane murder and the ongoing intimidation of lawyers by the RUC.

The alleged abuse ranges from impugning lawyers' professionalism, to outright death threats. Women lawyers are subjected to comments on their appearance and sexual harassment.

Over the years a range of international human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, have expressed strong concern. Organisations like British Irish Rights Watch and the Belfast-based Committee for the Administration of Justice, have fought long and hard to draw attention to the issue.

The Law Society of England and Wales sent a team to investigate in 1995, and the New York Lawyers Committee for Human Rights conducted missions in 1992 and 1995. All their reports called for immediate action to address the issue. All were ignored by both the Government, the RUC and, perhaps most surprisingly, the Law Society of Northern Ireland.

Cumaraswamy singled out for particular criticism the latter group's inaction, pointing out that 'the professional association of the legal professions in such cases are duty bound to rush in aid of their members'.

But Barra McGrory, who chaired the Law Society of Northern Ireland's criminal law committee for three years, says it is an unfair criticism. In his view the same sense of futility which persuaded lawyers to give up complaining to the RUC, also deterred them from raising the problem with the society.

'The reality of the situation is that, where the only evidence is the word of a suspect against the word of a police officer, invariably the investigator refuses to believe the word of the suspect over that of the policeman. No disciplinary action is therefore ever taken in such situations,' says McGrory.

'I did make two formal complaints to the RUC complaints and discipline branch,' he recalls. 'My clients gave statements and were interviewed as witnesses. On neither occasion did anything come of it. The policemen denied it and no disciplinary action was taken. I gave up after that.'

On joining the Law Society five years ago he did, however, give its president a dossier of incidents of intimidation and the president took it up with the chief constable. 'It didn't improve matters.' he says.

Other lawyers have recounted similar outcomes when they have lodged complaints. Since Cumaraswamy's visit to Belfast last October, the Law Society has now agreed a system with the RUC whereby complaints will be lodged with the society, who will log them before passing them to the RUC complaints body for investigation.

A by-product of the recent peace process has been a substantial drop in the incidence of such threats as fewer people are detained. Now the peace deal has raised hopes that the intimidation will come to an end, particularly if the planned reform of the RUC goes ahead.

McGrory points to another major feature of the Stormont peace package: the setting up of a police commission to examine ways of making the RUC a fairer, more representative and inclusive body.

He comments: 'This virtually means a new police force and would obviously have very favourable implications for this intimidation issue.'

But until the peace deal is confirmed by public referendum, no one is relaxing. Of the lawyers interviewed, most were wary of their profile being raised through being quoted in a newspaper article. One lawyer wondered whether publicly denouncing the intimidation might only encourage the gunmen. 'I have a lot of clients out there. My clients do not want to open a newspaper and read that the police think I am involved with a paramilitary group.'

Cumaraswamy has expressed particular concern for the safety of Rosemary Nelson, who has taken on a number of high-profile republican cases and acted on behalf of the Garvaghy Road residents in Portadown during the marching season. She is also based in Lurgan, the heartland of the hardcore Loyalist Volunteer Force, one of the paramilitary groups not party to the ceasefire.

As well as threats to her life, Nelson has been subject to demeaning comments made by RUC officers about her appearance. Last year she was physically assaulted and called a 'Fenian bitch' by police when they moved into the Garvaghy Road in advance of an Orange March. In recent months she has received more death threats, which human rights workers are taking seriously. A client has alleged that the driver of a police car taking him to Lurgan Barracks said in reference to Nelson that 'she won't be here that long – she will be dead'.

'I'm a firm believer in the rule of law,' says Nelson. 'I find it wholly unacceptable that if you're doing your job and doing it properly, you're subject to intimidation and threat.'

In his report, Cumaraswamy has recommended training seminars for police officers to sensitise them to the important role that defence lawyers play in the administration of justice.

Harassment has been directed at lawyers acting for clients on both sides of the divide. A republican client of Nelson's told her that while he was being held, RUC officers told him the home address of a protestant solicitor who represents loyalist paramilitaries. Of the 30-odd solicitors who take on 'politically motivated' cases, however, most are Catholic. This means that it is often Catholic lawyers who represent those charged with loyalist paramilitary activity.

Kevin Winters, of Madden & Finucane, explains: 'Most of the commercial work is carried out by older, established protestant lawyers. With the upsurge in the violence in the late 1960s and early 1970s, there were all these people needing representation. At the same time a new Catholic middle class had developed and there were a lot of Catholic lawyers coming out looking for work and that was the work that was available.'

The RUC has recently introduced video recording of interrogations at holding centres and there are plans to introduce audio recording. There are also proposals for a police ombudsman.

But the Government's rejection of the UN's call for a judicial inquiry into Pat Finucane's murder, leaves important questions about the role of the security forces in his killing unanswered. Until the truth is known, lawyers who are subject to intimidation will continue to feel uneasy.

'The worst form of intimidation is to be murdered,' says Finucane's widow Geraldine. She and her supporters are not about to abandon their campaign for an inquiry.

Meanwhile, Julia Hall of Human Rights Watch in New York warns: 'The amount of information pointing to official collusion is staggering and cannot go unanswered. How can the world take the UK's ethical foreign policy rhetoric seriously, when its most serious and unresolved human rights problems are right in its own backyard?'