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'Police Failed Rosemary Nelson': Press Release by Mrs Nuala O'Loan, then Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland, (19 September 2007)

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Text: Police Ombudsman ... Page compiled: Martin Melaugh

'Police Failed Rosemary Nelson': Press Release by Mrs Nuala O'Loan, Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland, Belfast, (Wednesday 19 September 2007)


Wednesday, 19 September 2007

The Police Ombudsman, Mrs Nuala O'Loan, has said an abusive and inherently dangerous leaflet and a death threat made against the solicitor Rosemary Nelson were not handled properly by the police.

Mrs O'Loan said that in their handling of these documents the RUC did not properly consider the particular nature of Mrs Nelson's public profile, or the level of concern about her safety.

These are the main findings from an investigation into four allegations from the Committee for the Administration of Justice (CAJ) about how specific aspects of Mrs Nelson's personal security were handled by the RUC.

The investigation was also extended to include an allegation, which was referred by the Chief Constable to the Police Ombudsman, from a police officer that a colleague at the scene of Mrs Nelson's murder had made derogatory remarks and kicked away evidence.

The Police Ombudsman supplied the material from her  investigation to Judge Peter Cory, who was looking at the wider issue of collusion in the death, and who in 2004 recommended a Public Inquiry. Her investigation was delayed as a consequence of a judicial review which lasted from 2002 -2005.

Mrs Nelson was murdered when a bomb exploded under her car as she left her home in Lurgan on March 15 1999.

For several years before her death, Mrs Nelson and many individuals and organisations, locally, nationally and internationally expressed concerns about her safety.

Mrs Nelson and others on her behalf had outlined 20 individual incidents over a period from October 1996 until September 1998 which concerned them. These included seven separate death threats, two of which were alleged to have been made by RUC officers, and the receipt of a bullet through the post. They also included eleven separate occasions when Mrs Nelson was the subject of comments alleged to have been made by police officers, some of which were reported to have tried to link her to terrorism.

In April 1997 police officers under the direction of the Independent Commission for Police Complaints (ICPC), the forerunner to the Police Ombudsman's Office, were tasked to investigate these issues. By July 1997 the ICPC had reported "ill disguised hostility" to Mrs Nelson among some RUC officers. In August 1997 the RUC Chief Constable appointed a Commander from the Metropolitan Police to take over the investigation. The investigation, which was completed in March 1999, one week after Mrs Nelson's death, found no evidence to confirm the allegations that an individual officer had issued those threats or made the abusive comments.

Those threats and the various alleged abusive and defamatory comments did not form part of the Police Ombudsman's investigation, but they provided the context for the investigation.

Allegation One: (a) The Chief Constable and other unnamed officers failed to properly investigate the threats in the documents which the NIO had forwarded to the Chief Constable's Office and  (b) the RUC failed to request the original threatening documents prior to the murder.

One of the matters referred to in the complaint was contained in a leaflet which circulated in the Portadown area during the summer of 1998, and which referred to Mrs Nelson in an abusive and inherently dangerous manner, and    gave her address and telephone number.  The other was a copy of an anonymous letter received by Mrs Nelson in June 1998, which said "We have you in our sights...RIP." Mrs Nelson said this letter terrified her. 

The CAJ sent the copy documents to the NIO and asked that there be an assessment of any threat to the people named, including Mrs Nelson. 

Finding. One (a) The Police Ombudsman has found that there is no evidence that the NIO forwarded the anonymous letter to the Chief Constable's Office. Police Ombudsman investigators have established that the NIO faxed a general letter about the issues raised in the leaflet and note, but did not find any evidence that the two documents were also faxed to the police.

However, Mrs O'Loan found the RUC were aware of the letter and that it contained a threat to Mrs Nelson. (Moreover, it is known that Mrs Nelson produced the letter at a meeting about her complaints in September 1998.) The Police Ombudsman said she believes that the RUC did not deal with either the letter or the leaflet properly.

Mrs O'Loan said the RUC's assessment of Mrs Nelson's situation, and its subsequent actions, were inadequate.  She said police should have made more strenuous efforts to establish a clearer picture of the level of risk and threat to Mrs Nelson, particularly given her profile at the time: 

"They did not acknowledge the existence of the previous death threats, including two threats which were said to have come from police officers. Nor did they acknowledge a previous assessment in which Special Branch believed Mrs Nelson was at a "degree of risk" and that police had taken "some precautions".

"No individual officer had the responsibility for bringing together all these matters and making a risk and threat assessment based on all the available information. There were no systems in place at that time designed to ensure that information was captured and processed in that way." she said.

Finding One (b) The Police Ombudsman found there is no evidence that prior to the murder, the RUC requested the documents which the NIO had omitted to send to them, and had not initiated any investigation of them.

Mrs O'Loan said that in handling these matters, the police did not acknowledge the context of the particular nature of Mrs Nelson's public profile and of the level of concern about her safety.

"Whether or not the anonymous note could have provided any forensic opportunity is a moot point. There is no evidence that the RUC tried to get the NIO copy of the anonymous letter, much less trace the original itself.

Strenuous enquiries should have been made into all the threats which Mrs Nelson received to identify whether there was any association between those threats and paramilitaries," said Mrs O'Loan.

Finding Two: The Police Ombudsman rejected a complaint that the RUC failed to properly investigate the threats against Mrs Nelson contained in Loyalist Billy Wrights diary, and to inform her of the content of the diary. She concluded there was no evidence that police had possession of the diary prior to Mrs Nelson's murder.

Finding Three. The Police Ombudsman rejected a complaint that police failed to warn Mrs Nelson about dangers she faced from the Loyalist Volunteer Force and its cover group, the Red Hand Defenders.   Police Ombudsman investigators examined all relevant files and established that police did not hold any intelligence relating to threats to Mrs Nelson from those groups. 

Finding Four:  The Police Ombudsman has not substantiated a complaint that the Chief Constable failed in his responsibility to respond to the concerns repeatedly raised by the CAJ.

The Police Ombudsman is of the view that were delays in the responses to CAJ's letters. However she accepts that there were occasions when the  Chief Constable and other officers did meet with CAJ, and that the Chief Constable explained that he could not answer some of the questions raised, without putting in danger the integrity of the investigation into Mrs Nelson's murder, and disclosing information he was not at liberty to disclose. 


The Chief Constable referred a complaint to the Police Ombudsman that a police officer at the scene of the explosion under Mrs Nelson's car (Officer A) had seen a uniformed sergeant, whom he did not know, walk through the cordoned off area, kick a piece of the explosive device and said "F... her, she is better off dead."

The officer revealed this information when drinking with colleagues in a bar more than five years after the murder. He was challenged by a colleague who asked him if he had reported it to the murder investigation team. The colleague said if the matter had not been reported, he would so. Officer A then reported the matter.

The Police Ombudsman's Office has expended considerable resources in investigation of this matter.

Investigators established that Officer A did not report this incident in the statement he gave, as a police officer at the scene of the murder, to the officers investigating Mrs Nelson's death.

When interviewed by Police Ombudsman investigators, Officer A gave a different version of what the uniformed sergeant was alleged to have kicked and said he was no longer sure if this had been on purpose or accidental.

At a subsequent Disciplinary Hearing, Officer A first denied that the incident happened and then said it had, but said that the uniformed sergeant had made the comment out of regard for Mrs Nelson's injuries, rather than out of malice. Officer A was given a caution for not reporting the matter at the time.

An examination of the photographic and forensic evidence and material from the scene shows no evidence that any unauthorised person entered the cordoned off area. No item fitting the description given by Officer A is missing.

All the sergeants who were identified as having been at the scene were the subject of investigation. None were identified as being responsible for the actions described by Officer A.

The Police Ombudsman has concluded that there is no evidence, other than Officer A's testimony, that the incident occurred.



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