Nationalist politicians expressed concern today that MI5 could use a decision to give it full legal representation at an inquiry into the murder of a human rights lawyer in Northern Ireland to suppress sensitive documents.
The Rosemary Nelson Inquiry ruled yesterday the security services would be granted the status of a full participant in public hearings into allegations of security force collusion in the 1999 murder of the 40-year-old solicitor in a loyalist car bomb outside her home in Lurgan, Co Armagh.
Sinn Féin Assembly member John O’Dowd was concerned MI5 could use its legal position to view papers and subsequently suppress them.
“Rosemary Nelson was a highly respected human rights lawyer, murdered by unionist paramilitaries after receiving numerous death threats from members of the RUC,” the Upper Bann MLA said.
“There is a widely held belief that British state agents were directly involved in her murder. This belief has been strengthened over the years as successive RUC and PSNI regimes have sought to frustrate and delay the search for the truth.
“I share the grave concerns being expressed by the Nelson family at this turn of events.
“Given the history of MI5 involvement in Ireland and the fact that they are a by-word for secrecy and concealment, there is a justifiable fear that their role within the Nelson inquiry will be to view material and then attempt to prevent it from either being made public or entering the inquiry at all.”
The inquiry, chaired by Michael Morland agreed to full participant status on grounds put to them by the security service – that it will have assumed the lead responsibility for national security intelligence work in Northern Ireland by the time the inquiry makes its recommendations.
MI5 argued to Mr Morloand it therefore needed to be able to make representations and to understand fully the evidence behind, and reasons for, any recommendations.
It also said it wanted full legal representation because the inquiry may wish to consider intelligence material in the course of its proceedings.
Despite an extensive police investigation nobody has ever been charged with the murder of Rosemary Nelson in March 1999 which was blamed on loyalist paramilitaries.
In his report into allegations of collusion, retired Canadian Supreme Court judge Peter Cory recommended the establishment of an inquiry to look into the circumstances of the murder and into the allegations of collusion.
He made similar recommendations for inquires into the murders of Belfast solicitor Pat Finucane – shot dead in his Belfast home in February 1989; loyalist paramilitary leader Billy Wright – shot dead by republicans inside the Maze Prison in December 1997; and Robert Hamill – a Catholic beaten to death by loyalists in Portadown, Co Armagh in April 1997.
The Nelson inquiry is scheduled to start oral hearings in mid January next year.
Full participant status has previously been granted to Mrs Nelson’s husband and her mother, separately, the police, Ministry of Defence, Northern Ireland Office and Colin Port who headed an investigation team which re-investigated the Nelson murder.
Mrs Nelson’s brother, Eunan McGee, said the decision had taken the family by surprise and was concerned that MI5 could use its status to remove sensitive documents.
SDLP Policing Board member Dolores Kelly described the ruling as a strange and unprecedented development.
“Why would MI5 want to be involved in the Nelson inquiry? Is it because they had intelligence about Rosemary’s murder?” the Upper Bann MLA asked.
“If so, what did they do with it? Did they just sit on it for seven years like they did a bomb warning they had about Omagh?
“Or is this just a warning to us all about the enlarged role that MI5 wants to have in the North in the future – involving themselves in more and more aspects of policing? Whatever the answer, this is a profoundly worrying development.”