It's time to banish the shadows

Robert Owen QC and Tim Otty, are executive members of the Bar Human Rights Committee.

One of the most striking aspects of the murder of Rosemary Nelson last month is the fact that it so clearly occurred as a result of her status as a lawyer. Her murderers directly associated her with the causes of those she represented simply because of her work. In these circumstances the killing represents not just an individual tragedy but a direct affront to the rule of law and, as such, it demands not only the fullest and most thorough investigation but also the adoption by the Government of active measures to support the legal profession in Northern Ireland.

One of these measures would be the establishment of a full judicial inquiry into the death of Patrick Finucane, another prominent human rights lawyer killed in Belfast 10 years ago.

On 12 February 1989 a group of loyalist terrorists burst into Finucane's home and murdered him in front of his wife and children. The case immediately attracted controversy not just because of Finucane's profession but also because it occurred a matter of weeks after Douglas Hogg (then a junior minister) had asserted that "a number of solicitors in Northern Ireland are unduly sympathetic to the cause of the IRA".

Even at this early stage, the cases of Rosemary Nelson and Patrick Finucane bear unnerving similarities. Although not following controversial comments from a government minister, Nelson's death came in the same week that the Independent Commission for Police Complaints published a report heavily critical of the RUC investigation into threats she claimed had been made against her by RUC officers (one officer was described as attending an investigation interview 45 minutes late and smelling of alcohol).

Both murders took place at the victims' homes in circumstances where, until shortly before they occurred, there had been unusually high levels of security force activity. Both lawyers had had a number of widely publicised successes in representing their clients in cases which brought them up against either the RUC or the Army. Finally, as was the case with Nelson, a large number of Finucane's clients had reported back to him that, during the course of RUC questioning, express death threats had been made against him by RUC officers.

At present little is known about Rosemary Nelson's murder. Ten years on, much more is known about Patrick Finucane's and all of it is disturbing. The murder weapon came from Army barracks and an officer of the Ulster Defence Regiment was convicted of its theft. In January 1990 a loyalist terrorist named Brian Nelson was convicted of murder. During evidence given at his trial a Colonel "J" from Army Intelligence claimed that while a member of the Ulster Defence Association, Nelson had acted as an agent of Army Intelligence, that he had provided information about planned UDA assassinations and that all information received from Nelson was passed on to the RUC.

In 1992 a prison diary said to have belonged to Nelson was reported by the BBC's Panorama as containing a claim that Nelson's "handlers" were informed of the proposal to assassinate Finucane but that they did nothing about it. Jim Sands, another loyalist, has claimed that assassinations were planned and sanctioned by a committee drawn from the security forces, local businessmen and loyalist paramilitaries. In respect of Finucane he has claimed that RUC officers actively encouraged his "removal".

Even before the death of Rosemary Nelson, Mo Mowlam had agreed to consider new material said to consist of intelligence documentation showing state collusion in Finucane's killing and a deliberate frustration of such investigations as have taken place into it. It is profoundly to be hoped that the Secretary of State and the Government will now take steps to establish a full judicial inquiry into the murder. Rosemary Nelson had herself repeatedly made clear the intolerable position of lawyers having to go about their daily business under the constant and dark shadow of the killing of Patrick Finucane. Her death has cast a further shadow of the same kind.