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March 12, 2007

Rosemary Nelson: Irish Champion of Human Rights

News about Ireland & the Irish

BG 03/12/07 An Irish Champion Of Human Rights

(Poster’s Note: I am going to be out of pocket this week, so
news postings will be intermittent. But this is certainly
a week not to forget Rosemary Nelson. For more info go

to: Jay)


An Irish Champion Of Human Rights

By Michael Patrick MacDonald

March 12, 2007

THIS WEEK we celebrate St. Patrick's Day with parades that were
originally organized by the Irish to express ethnic pride in the
face of discrimination. So secure are the Irish in America that
they are rarely offended by the marketing of Irish caricature.
Target, for instance, sells a line of T-shirts proclaiming "6th
Annual St. Patrick's Day Race for Beer" or "Green Beer Taste

Amid the worst representations of what it means to be Irish, it's
a good time to remember the human rights struggles that have
defined Irish history. I don't mean by going as far back as the
famine or to British cartoons depicting the Irish as apes and an
inferior "race." We only need to look to ongoing struggles in
Northern Ireland where, to this day, it is not so safe to
identify yourself as Irish and Catholic.

This week the residents of the Garvaghy Road in Northern Ireland
will hold a memorial for their beloved friend and defender
Rosemary Nelson. The Garvaghy Road neighborhood, a mostly
Catholic and nationalist community hemmed in by a very Protestant
and Unionist town, Portadown, has in the past decade been a point
of resistance against invasive Orange Order marches, which
celebrate Anglo triumph over the Irish and Unionist loyalty to
the British crown. On March 15, 1999, Nelson, a lawyer who
spearheaded the Catholic community's resistance to sectarian
Orange Order marches, got into a booby-trapped car that exploded,
killing her. She was only 40 and left behind a husband and three

The investigation into her death has languished. But if you ask
most Catholics in the North, they will tell you that the best
evidence points to the police.

That theory gains support from a January report by an independent
ombudsman on widespread collusion between police and loyalist
death squads. In the years before her murder, Nelson reported
many death threats issued to her from police through her clients
during interrogations.

In 1998, Param Cumaraswamy, the United Nations special rapporteur
on the independence of judges and lawyers, suggested that
Nelson's life could be in danger. His report made specific
recommendations to the United Kingdom government regarding police
threats against lawyers -- none of which, a year later, had been
implemented. In September 1998, just six months before she was
murdered, Nelson testified before the US Congress about death
threats against her and her family.

Nelson devoted her life to justice and equality. She advocated
for independent inquiries into murders, such as that of human
rights defender Pat Finucane in 1989, when evidence pointed to
involvement by security forces. She did the same in cases of
police inaction, as in the case of Robert Hamill, who was stomped
to death in 1997 by a loyalist mob, as police reportedly stood by
and ignored pleas to intervene.

I first heard of Rosemary Nelson shortly after she was murdered,
when I spent nearly a month on the Garvaghy Road as an
international observer invited by the Garvaghy Road Residents'
Coalition. Stunned by the nonstop, police-protected Orange Order
marches and bonfires surrounding the besieged Catholic community,
the only humanity I could cling to in Portadown was in the
stories told to me by traumatized residents about the loss of
their friend Rosemary. They described a small-framed Irish woman
walking confidently down the Garvaghy Road to confront security
forces and the armored cars that were forcing the bigoted marches
through the Catholic enclave. And though their voices quivered
with grief, their stories of Rosemary seemed like a gift from
their defender herself; as they spoke of her, these storytellers
regained their strength and self-respect.

In today's America, the celebration of St. Patrick's Day has
become a display of cultural amnesia, if not a full-on embrace of
the worst stereotypes of Irish drinking and fighting. Thankfully,
not all Irish Americans have forgotten their history, or its
legacy for all victims of human rights abuses.

The remembrances are flowing across the pond, from New York and
Boston to the Garvaghy Road. As the Brehon Law Society, a guild
of Irish American lawyers, declared, "Let us construct in
Rosemary's memory a most fitting memorial; namely, forging real
reform in policing and the administration of the law so that
counsel shall never again lose their lives in Northern Ireland
for simply doing what any just society demands of them."

Michael Patrick MacDonald, the author of "All Souls" and "Easter
Rising," is a guest columnist.

c Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company

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