A death foretold

Despite Rosemary Nelson's murder, the Northern Irish peace process will survive.

Published March 17, 1999 8:00PM (EST)

Less than a year ago Rosemary Nelson of Lurgan, Northern Ireland, told me she worried that her three children might see her murdered, just the way the children of a fellow human rights lawyer, Pat Finucane, had seen their father gunned down at the dinner table back in 1989. The worry would not go away. Just a few weeks ago, when Nelson was leading demands for an inquiry into alleged collusion between British security forces and loyalist paramilitaries in the Finucane assassination, she asked Prime Minister Tony Blair's office for protection. She was denied it, causing her to lie awake nights contemplating scenarios of her own violent death.

On Monday, Nelson was murdered. After a weekend fishing trip with her husband, she was heading for work when a bomb strapped to the underside of her car tore her legs off and ripped through her abdomen. Her 8-year-old daughter, Sarah, was on lunch break in her school yard, less than 50 yards away. Nelson's sister, a teacher at the same school, spoke with Rosemary as firefighters cut through the twisted metal that pinioned the victim. Nelson lived two hours longer.

According to Dolores Kelly, deputy mayor of nearby Craigavon, Nelson "took the issues nobody else wanted to touch," representing clients in both Catholic and Protestant communities. Last month Nelson went to Blair's office at 10 Downing Street to discuss the persistence of harassment by Northern Ireland's Royal Ulster Constabulary, intimidation intended to discourage her from providing people with republican politics their right to legal counsel. She described how members of the RUC had repeatedly issued death threats against her because her large, cross-community clientele included Colin Duffy, a man who'd been acquitted of murdering two RUC members; the family of Robert Hamill, a Catholic walking home from a dance who was kicked to death by a loyalist mob while four RUC officers watched from their Land Rover; and a group of 200 nationalists trapped in their neighborhood by a contingent of hard-line loyalist Orange Order members who'd set up camp there, whom police would not remove in spite of legal directives forbidding the encampment.

A tiny group of professional killers called the Red Hand Defenders have claimed responsibility for Nelson's death. But Northern Ireland's police chief, Ronnie Flanagan, admitted Tuesday that the faction lacked the technical resources to pull off this car-bombing alone, suggesting collaboration with other more expert assassins. The killers' twofold goal was to silence one of the most visible crusaders against police intimidation in the six counties and to undermine the year-old Northern Ireland peace process by provoking a cycle of violent reaction.

Nelson's assassination comes at what was already a delicate moment for a peace process that began with the signing of the Good Friday accord last year: The new Northern Ireland Assembly's first minister, David Trimble, has made clear that he will require a commitment that the Irish Republican Army is ready to begin decommissioning of weapons before he will permit the two Sinn Fein delegates to take their seats. On Wednesday, President Clinton will meet with Irish officials and leaders from the North and South, to try to push the peace process forward. The horror at Nelson's murder will either stabilize the process -- or set it back dramatically.

Yet in spite of Monday's horrifying event -- and of the nearly three dozen murders in Northern Ireland over the past year -- it is still possible to declare that the bomb and the gun are no longer decisive in Northern Irish politics. Last spring voters on both sides of the Irish border voted overwhelmingly in support of the Good Friday accord, an extraordinary document that established new cross-border legislative and judicial bodies jointly representing the Republic of Ireland and Britain as well as calling for reform in key areas of contention -- including policing.

It was particularly ironic that Rosemary Nelson was murdered while many of the leaders in both communities -- including Trimble, Deputy First Minister Seamus Mallon and Irish Congress of Trade Unions leader Inez McCormack -- who have kept the peace process on track had just the weekend before crossed the Atlantic for a conference held jointly at Seton Hall University in New Jersey and across the Hudson at Columbia University. Called "The Equality Agenda: Northern Ireland in 2000," the conference put on display the components of the Good Friday accord: a focus on human rights -- as manifested through economic, cultural and legal rights -- in every aspect and at every stage of building this new society.

What makes the Good Friday accord so radical is its refusal to accept the old bilateral model of the body politic -- Catholic Nationalist vs. Protestant Loyalist. From the time of the first cease-fire declaration back in the fall of 1994, a startlingly broad array of community activists has seized the opportunity demilitarization has brought to articulate a radical new notion of equality that seeks the bannerless people on the furthest fringes of their communities and thrusts them into a forum with people who'd already presumed their own right to be heard. The new model for Northern Irish inclusion counts gender, ethnicity, physical capacity, race, sexual orientation and socioeconomic class -- not just religion.

Much of the impulse for inclusion has come from women, who were sick of the war-room secrecy that characterized Northern politics for so long. Civil rights activist Bernadette McAliskey once said that she didn't devote her life to the cause of freedom only to turn decision-making over "to a small group of men playing high-class intellectual poker with Ireland's future and refusing to consult or inform the masses." The refusal by leading Irish women to pursue business-as-usual politics led to an agenda that includes the issues of Chinese, South Asians, Travelers (Ireland's nomadic people) and other ethnic communities as well as disabled people and the lesbian and gay communities. Perhaps the most startling feature of this new inclusivity is its declaration that there will be no "hierarchy of victims," a worldview that gets the Irish beyond the old Catholic vs. Protestant polarities. There will be no yardstick for establishing who has suffered more than whom. As London sociologist Mary Hickman reminded last weekend's conferees, the Good Friday agreement was not simply about people having the good manners to respect differences, but about their "having the freedom to express differences."

The implications of this bold new venture reach beyond Northern Ireland. Nancy Soderberg, who as a National Security Council official steered the Clinton administration's Northern Ireland policy during the hardest years of negotiation, told the conference that the lessons the White House has learned in Northern Ireland are informing its approach to the futures of Ethiopia, Cambodia, Haiti and Kosovo. As U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights (and former Irish President) Mary Robinson has pointed out, "The legacy of the Cold War which suggested there was contradiction between civil and political rights on the one hand, and economic, social and cultural on the other, is slowly dissipating." The United Nations is now urging governments to conduct "human rights assessments," Robinson said, along the lines of environmental impact assessments.

But while the stamina of Northern Ireland's grass-roots peace architects remains inspiring, the dangers to civil liberties that Rosemary Nelson struggled to expose continue apace: So-called "emergency legislation" that allows police to sweep through neighborhoods picking up people and detaining them for up to a week with no charges being proffered and no right to legal counsel; progressive erosion of the right to silence; resistance to the idea that a peacetime police service needs a vetting mechanism to eliminate people with records of abuse. Even those in the law enforcement establishment who are willing to institute reform measures are loath to establish a truth commission to deal with the facts of the RUC's part in supporting and perpetrating torture and murder. "The police say, 'Let's look forward; don't look back.'" says Human Rights Watch attorney Julia Hall.

By Margaret Spillane

Margaret Spillane writes frequently about politics and culture.

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