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  •   Car Bomb Kills Catholic Lawyer in Northern Ireland

    The coffin containing the body of Rosemary Nelson is carried by family members back into her home in Lurgan, County Armagh. (AP)
    By T. R. Reid
    Washington Post Foreign Service
    Tuesday, March 16, 1999; Page A13

    LONDON, March 15—A prominent Roman Catholic human rights lawyer was killed by a car bomb outside her home this afternoon as sectarian tension in Northern Ireland erupted into fresh violence.

    Rosemary Nelson, 40, died in the hospital of injuries suffered when a device exploded under her car in Lurgan, 30 miles southwest of Belfast.

    The dissident Protestant Red Hand Defenders, a group outlawed only this month for a series of bomb and grenade attacks, claimed responsibility for the killing in a call to the BBC.

    Officials noted that the key question now is whether the murder will prompt retaliation from nationalist paramilitary forces. A series of tit-for-tat actions could take the British province back toward the state of sectarian warfare that prevailed for 30 years until last year's historic Good Friday peace agreement.

    In London, British Prime Minister Tony Blair vowed that the bombing would not be allowed to harm the province's shaky peace.

    In Washington, where many of the island's politicians -- that is, politicians from both the Republic of Ireland and the province of Northern Ireland -- are gathered this week for St. Patrick's Day celebrations, President Clinton condemned "a despicable and cowardly act by the enemies of peace."

    There have been attacks and killings in Northern Ireland since the agreement was signed, most notably the bomb planted by a dissident Irish republican group that killed 29 people shopping in the town square of Omagh on a Saturday last August. But none of the attacks in the past year has prompted clear retaliation, and that has been seen as proof that the province is moving toward peace.

    Northern Ireland's politicians have squabbled for months over terms of the Good Friday agreement, and as a result they have been unable to start the new local government mandated by the peace plan.

    In meetings in Washington this week, Clinton and other U.S. politicians were expected to push their Northern Ireland counterparts hard to stop arguing and put the peace plan to work.

    Northern Ireland's 1.6 million residents are split on the future of their province. The predominantly Protestant "unionist" community wants to retain the traditional union with Britain. The mainly Roman Catholic "nationalists" want closer ties or even union with the Republic of Ireland. The dispute between the two camps is not religious, but ancient religious enmity exacerbates the political differences.

    Nelson, who was married and the mother of three children aged 8 to 13, had a law practice in her home town but represented nationalist activists in high-profile cases throughout the province. Associates in Lurgan said her life had been threatened before.

    Nelson represented the Catholic residents of Garvaghy Road, who refused to allow a Protestant fraternal organization to parade past their homes in annual sectarian commemorations that prompted province-wide violence. About 400 Protestants held a demonstration last week to emphasize their determination to hold the parade.

    This annual parade has sparked one of the angriest disputes in a province that has more conflicts than it can count. The nationalists on Garvaghy Road say their human rights will be violated if a parade is permitted to pass along their street. The unionist group says its human rights will be violated if it cannot march down the one road it has chosen.

    Nelson and her husband had been away for the weekend, police said, and her silver BMW sedan was left in the driveway outside her home in Lurgan. Shortly after noon today, she got into the car and it exploded. She was alive when an ambulance arrived, but died shortly afterward in a hospital.

    Nelson testified in Washington on Sept. 29 about the harassment and intimidation of defense lawyers representing nationalists in political cases in Northern Ireland. In testimony before the House Committee on International Operations and Human Rights, she accused the province's Protestant-dominated police force, the Royal Ulster Constabulary, of making death threats against her and her family through clients and well as sending "threatening telephone calls and letters" directly to her.


    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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