Nelson, Rosemary (1959–1999), human rights lawyer, was born Rosemary Magee at Lurgan, Co. Armagh, daughter of Thomas Magee and his wife Sheila. A strawberry birthmark partly paralysed the left side of her face, and from the age of ten she endured several years of facial surgery and skin grafts. She was educated at Tannaghmore primary school and St Michael's grammar school, Lurgan, then studied law at QUB (1978–81). Her teachers included David Trimble, and she made the acquaintance of Mary McAleese. She was apprenticed at John Hagan solicitors, Lurgan, 1981–4. During this period she married Paul Nelson, accountant; they had two sons and a daughter. Rosemary Nelson worked for the practice of McKnight & Co. at Lisburn (1984–8), then, in 1988, became the first female solicitor to open a practice at Lurgan; it was large and successful. Nelson helped to establish a Lurgan advice and health centre, which assisted Travellers, women suffering from domestic violence, the elderly, and recipients of state benefits, and she served on the executive of the Campaign for the Administration of Justice, a civil liberties group. She was an enthusiast for the Irish language and traditional music.
Nelson was one of the relatively few lawyers prepared to represent high-profile republican defendants. She sometimes also represented loyalists: ‘if she felt an injustice had been done, she would pursue that case 110 per cent. With Rosemary it wasn't about republicanism or loyalism, it was about human rights’ (Irish Times, 16 Mar. 1999). Many loyalists and members of the security forces saw her as guilty by association with her clients. This view was reinforced by her role as spokeswoman and legal representative of the Garvaghy Road residents’ group (often seen as a republican front), formed early in 1995 to resist Orange parades from Drumcree church down the catholic Garvaghy Road, and her lengthy and successful representation of Colin Duffy, a prominent Lurgan republican accused of murder. Nelson acted for the family of Robert Hamill, kicked to death by a mob at Portadown on 8 May 1997 within sight of an armed police unit.
In 1996 a lawsuit brought by Nelson contributed to the decision of the RUC chief constable to ban the Orange parade from entering the Garvaghy Road (reversed after widespread loyalist unrest). In 1997 Nelson formally complained of physical and verbal abuse from RUC members as protesters were cleared from the road before the parade. She prepared over 200 compensation claims against the police for residents. Many residents came to see her as a friend as well as a lawyer. ‘She would help you. She was there for you. She would put bread on your table’ (Irish News, 16 Mar. 1999). Nelson claimed that from the late 1980s RUC men interrogating her clients repeatedly made slanderous, obscene, misogynistic, and threatening statements about her; this intensified after the Drumcree protests began. A report by the independent commission for police complaints, released shortly after her death, supported her claims. Nelson appeared on an ‘enemies list’ compiled by the loyalist paramilitary Billy Wright (qv) and circulated after his death. In 1998 a loyalist leaflet made public her address and telephone number, claimed that her facial scar had been acquired while planting a bomb, and accused her of sexual involvement with republican clients.
Nelson saw herself as ‘trying to defend people's rights when they have no state to defend them’. She compared the atmosphere in Portadown to ‘a toxic fog . . . racism disguised as sectarianism . . . reminiscent of the southern states of America in the 1950s and 1960s’, equated the Garvaghy Road area with the townships to which South African blacks were confined under apartheid, and declared that Drumcree was not a matter for compromise between two competing groups, but represented a human rights issue and the need to uphold the rule of law. Mo Mowlam (qv), secretary of state for Northern Ireland, claimed that she ‘liked and respected’ Nelson but found her ‘pushy and difficult’ and spoke of her ‘combative style’ (Mowlam, 272); Nelson accused Mowlam of betraying commitments to the Garvaghy residents by allowing the 1997 parade at short notice. Nelson developed extensive links with the media and international human rights groups; she gave evidence on the threats against her to a United Nations special representative and the human rights subcommittee of the US congress house committee on foreign affairs. She called for the abolition of the RUC as necessary for the establishment of the human rights guaranteed by the 1998 Belfast agreement.
On 15 March 1999 Nelson's car was destroyed by a booby-trap bomb as she drove near her daughter's school; she lost both legs, suffered major abdominal injuries, and died two hours later at Craigavon Area Hospital. Her extensive international contacts and the timing of her murder to coincide with St Patrick's day produced a worldwide outcry. Human rights groups (including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch) expressed concern about the state's failure to protect Nelson and the ability of defence lawyers to operate freely within the Northern Ireland legal system. (Nelson was not eligible for official protection because she was not an elected representative; some sources claim that she would anyway have refused it because she disliked the prospect of the RUC examining her house.) Her death was followed by anti-police protests by nationalists and celebrations among Orange and loyalist elements in North Armagh, allegedly including members of the security forces.
The murder was committed by the Red Hand Defenders, a cover-name for elements of the Loyalist Volunteer Force and Ulster Defence Association. Witnesses claimed that unusually heavy activity by the security forces in north Lurgan before her death indicated collusion in the murder; this was denied. In 2002 the Canadian judge Peter Cory was nominated to investigate her death and several others involving possible state collusion. Despite an extensive police investigation supervised by Colin Port, chief constable of Norfolk, no one was charged with her murder in the years immediately following her death.
Nelson reflected a new generation of catholic professionals who enjoyed educational opportunities unavailable to their parents’ generation while identifying with their working-class co-religionists to an extent unusual among their protestant counterparts. She also exemplifies the ability of late twentieth-century nationalists and republicans to frame their agenda in the language of human rights; her career and death raised troubling questions about security policy and the workings of the justice system during the Northern Ireland troubles.