State Papers1992-2002

Rosemary Nelson murder: Role of FBI in investigation seen as bid to lend ‘dubious respectability’

Northern secretary Mo Mowlam also vowed no stone would be left unturned in inquiry into solicitor Pat Finucane’s killing

Senior officials in the Department of Foreign Affairs were sceptical of a decision by the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) to ask a team from the US Federal Bureau of Investigations to assist its investigation into the loyalist murder of solicitor Rosemary Nelson in 1999.

Nelson was a high-profile lawyer who had represented the Garvaghy Road Residents’ Association and Robert Hammill, the Catholic man kicked to death by a loyalist mob in Portadown in 1997.

She died in a car bomb outside her home in Lurgan, Co Armagh, in March 1999. Red Hand Defenders — a group affiliated with the loyalist paramilitary organisation, the UDA — claimed responsibility for her murder.

On the day of her murder RUC chief constable Ronnie Flanagan contacted the FBI to ask it to assist in the investigation. The police inquiry was also led by an outside police force, the Kent constabulary, amid concerns from Ms Nelson’s family that the RUC had failed to adequately respond to ongoing threats on her life.


However, within two months senior officials in the Department of Foreign Affairs were suggesting that the involvement of the FBI in the investigation seemed tokenistic and the purpose seemed to be to give the murder investigation the perception of independence and credibility among the public.

Evidence collection

Following newspaper reports that the FBI team had left after four weeks, the Irish government’s secretariat in Belfast asked the British government for a “clear statement” about the precise involvement and status of the FBI in the investigation.

In a communication from Maryfield in Belfast to Iveagh House, an Irish official confirmed the FBI had remained in Northern Ireland for only four weeks. The official said his British counterparts had told him the FBI had provided as much assistance as they could on investigative strategy, evidence collection and data management.

Quoting the British response, he wrote: “They publicly stated that the RUC were carrying out a thorough and painstaking investigation and expressed their confidence that all appropriate lines on inquiry were being pursued.”

In his own commentary, the Irish official says the British side’s “response is defensive in tone and weak on detail”.

The official also said the FBI seemed to be distancing itself somewhat from the investigation.

The Irish Embassy in Washington spoke to Mary Noonan, a staffer of congressman Chris Smith, who had asked questions about the involvement of the FBI in the investigation.

Noonan told an Irish diplomat that her principal concern was “the likelihood that the British authorities would seek to use the FBI association with the inquiry to lend respectability to an otherwise dubious enterprise”.

Pat Finucane

The diplomat noted that Noonan’s sense was that FBI headquarters “was at pains to avert criticism, particularly from Irish-American groups, by playing down its involvement”.

In the same week, Northern Ireland secretary of state Mo Mowlam promised the Irish government she would “not let drop” an investigation into who was involved in the murder of lawyer Pat Finucane a decade earlier — before inquiry plans were quietly sidelined.

In a letter responding to then minister of State Liz O’Donnell on May 24th, 1999, Mowlam said she was aware of “certain allegations” surrounding the 1989 murder and that she wanted answers about what happened.

Saying “all options remain open”, the Northern Ireland secretary said: “I am determined that all necessary steps should be taken to ensure that those responsible for the murder are brought to justice.”

The Finucane family continues to push for a public inquiry into the murder.

Harry McGee

Harry McGee

Harry McGee is a Political Correspondent with The Irish Times