“I BELIEVE that my role as a lawyer in defending the rights of my clients is vital. The test of a new society in Northern Ireland will be the extent to which it can recognise and respect that role, and enable me to discharge it without improper interference. I look forward to that day.”
Rosemary Nelson, said these words in Washington DC, in September 1998, during her testimony before a Congressional hearing on human rights in Northern Ireland. They carried an air of conviction, inspiration and hope. Now they seem ironically haunting.
Rosemary spoke repeatedly of threats from members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary – threats conveyed to her, she said, by her clients, who had been told that their solicitor would end up dead.
She spoke of experiencing assault and verbal abuse from a member of the RUC in the Garvaghy Road as she carried out her professional duty to the local residents – whom she represented.
She spoke of receiving threatening letters and phone calls. And yet she carried on.
And, indeed, she was a lawyer to be reckoned with. A sole practitioner for many years – her practice was 10 years old this month – she dealt with cases in many fields of law: probate, family, conveyancing, criminal and others.
As every solicitor knows, running a practice is a highly demanding, full-time concern. That Rosemary did so for so long, while at the same time being the mother of three young children, speaks volumes for her ability and dedication – a dedication that often went far beyond the call of duty.
The confident manner in which she combined legal practice with high-profile representation gained her the respect of her colleagues, the confidence of her clients and the deep affection of her community.
One case she worked on was that of Robert Hamill, a young man kicked and beaten to death by a Loyalist mob in Portadown. Shortly before her own murder, Rosemary drew parallels between the death of Hamill and that of Stephen Lawrence, and the undercurrent of institutionalised prejudice in both cases.
Hamill's sister Diane speaks of the way that, right from the outset, Rosemary instilled a strong sense of hope that justice could be achieved for her brother. Diane remembers her not merely as her solicitor, but also her friend – a constant well of support day or night.
I feel privileged to have known Rosemary Nelson. Notwithstanding her enviable professional qualities, I will remember a vibrant, zesty woman with a devilishly keen sense of humour and an inspiring resolve. I will always be proud to says she was a colleague. I will always be saddened by the loss of my friend.
Michael Finucane is a lawyer and son of Pat Finucane, the murdered civil rights lawyer.