Notes on a Notebook

Andrew O’Hagan

You set out believing in a world of possible truths; you finish up in an eternity of corridors waiting for clarification. Sometimes the only truth you find is the truth of your own hunger to find. You see in a flash that nothing will come of further questions or second trips. Between the lines of your unyielding story another narrative may awaken and begin to stand up. And that will be the story you take home: the unending story of the story itself.

You’d do well to snap your pencil and walk away at that point. Exhaustion can be a wise counsellor. But sometimes the second story not only stands up but takes to running: it comes after you, and even in your sleep you meet these pieces that won’t fit together, voices and minutes and partial truths hanging around on their own. These fragments – rags of description, orphan facts – can become the spoiled children of the journalistic art. They want attention but not direction. They demand the right to exist without the requirement to coalesce. It is usually worth ignoring the impulse to put them in a school and call it an academy. All I can say is that one morning in twenty you do well to forget your own advice.

2. Last April I began to write an account of the life and death of Rosemary Nelson, a 40-year-old solicitor in the town of Lurgan in County Armagh. At 12.40 p.m. on 15 March she got into her car outside her house at 5 Ashgrove Grange. As she drove away a bomb went off in the car. She lost both legs and suffered fatal abdominal injuries. Sarah, the youngest of her three children, was on her break at the primary school fifty yards away when the bomb went off. The two boys were on a school trip to France. Her husband was at work.

Mrs Nelson had just come back from a few days in Donegal. Her car had been sitting outside the house. Within hours of her murder Tony Blair spoke of it as ‘a disgusting act of barbarity’. David Andrews, the Irish Foreign Minister, said that it was ‘clearly designed to sabotage the peace process at this very critical time’. A crowd of about two hundred young people marched on the RUC station at Lurgan. A few of them threw petrol bombs at it. Mrs Nelson had been the Catholic residents’ legal representative in their efforts to stop the annual Drumcree march from coming down the Garvaghy Road. She was also prominent in the demands for an inquiry into alleged British security forces involvement in the killing of the Nationalist lawyer Pat Finucane in 1989.

Responsibility for the killing of Mrs Nelson was claimed by an unknown organisation that called itself the Red Hand Defenders.

3. I bought a new notepad in London and looked at the pages. I always buy a notepad with a degree of breezy hopefulness, flipping through the blank pages and wondering what will become of them. I buy the same ones every time – A4 and green as it happens – and the man in Haverstock Hill who sells them to me always looks up as if to say ‘here we go again.’ The hopefulness wears off and I grow superstitious and fearful looking at the pages. What if I can’t get it down? Looking at the last page I try to guess at some future frame of mind. Will anything crucial happen on these pages? This time I had a dream that my notepad wasn’t blank at all; it was full of strange bumps. And what I was doing wasn’t writing at all but rubbing. The story is already there in the dream: I rub a crayon into each page and words appear, but the hard thing behind the page is never apparent, and I don’t know what to trust. In the morning when I woke up I looked at the notepad. All I could see were the lines I’d copied down the night before from a hate letter sent to Rosemary Nelson. ‘We have you in our sights you republican Bastard. We will teach you a lesson. RIP.’

4. Rain was blowing over Lurgan my first day there. Young boys were playing football in a field beside the main road. Everywhere you looked things seemed normal: D.F. Heaney’s, the newsagent; Kernan’s Fruit – Veg. A few small shops, more like parlours than shops, are devoted to ladies’ fashions, with names like Scruples and Elegance. You always see these places in Ireland and Scotland – hard against the chip shop – with tall mannequins and their big eyelashes. A flow of youngsters came out of the school gates slugging from plastic bottles of pop – orange or green or black or blue – ignoring the rain, the cars and the time, attending only to each other.

Some of the flags were torn by the wind. The Irish ones were tied to lamp-posts on the road to Market Street. Union Jacks and Red Hands of Ulster were up on Russell Drive, on the other side of the town, and they, too, were ripped by the wind. Mrs Nelson was two weeks dead. I walked to her office and looked up at the windows. The door was locked and the street was busy with people doing their afternoon things. They walked past the solicitor’s office like it was nothing special. It was just another house on another street in a town in Northern Ireland. And yet it was their own town. The ones I spoke to called it theirs.

‘The first time I met Rosemary she was with the Shankhill Help,’ said Wilson Free-burn, with a mug of tea in front of him. ‘It was 12 years ago and we had no money and I was involved in community relations and she was trying to give Citizens Advice.’ He stared into the Formica. ‘She had sparkle you know – and she never charged those voluntary groups for her time. She just gave it. And her mother helped out on the Voluntary Bus for 15 years. She wasn’t born with a silver spoon in her mouth. She was a working-class girl. It wasn’t a weakness Rosemary had but where she saw a need she found it difficult to say no’

I wrote all this down in the notepad. I wrote more and still more and turned over the pages. He spoke of how the public toilets down the street marked the border between Catholic and Protestant Lurgan. And he told stories of people who had been murdered here: a mobile shop blown up; two community policemen shot; a girl called Bernadette Martin with a Protestant boyfriend shot in the middle of the night. There had been more than 120 deaths in this town since the start of the Troubles. ‘Nobody trusts the police,’ he said. ‘There’s even a credibility gap between the RUC and the Protestant community. There’s systematic sectarianism within the RUC just as there is systematic racism within the British police force in England.’

An old man sat down. He said that Mrs Nelson’s father told the Nationalist boys who were rioting and destroying buses to stop it. ‘He didn’t want them doing damage in his daughter’s name,’ he said, ‘he called them out.’ Another man who joined us, a youth worker, said he was a Nationalist who could shake hands with RUC officers. ‘This Nelson thing,’ he said, ‘it caused my boys – the boys I look after – to go out rioting. Two years’ work was destroyed over one night.’

5. In some ways the Garvaghy Road in Portadown is like a South African township. Graffiti are daubed on many of the walls (‘Disband the RUC.’ ‘This is an Orange-Free Zone’). And as well as that there is something territorial about the way people occupy the street. You would guess the community was under siege: everyone seems to notice your presence. You wouldn’t wander there absent-mindedly or roam around without a reason or an appointment. Like a township it seems to be a place that is policed by the people who live there.

Brendan MacCionnaith has very green eyes. He is said by some to be the most wanted man in Ireland. His name appeared with Rosemary Nelson’s on many of the death-threat letters and leaflets doing the rounds during the Drumcree stand-off this year and last. At the door of the Drumcree Community Centre he waved to a busload of pensioners setting off for a day outing. He is charismatic and young and you can tell that the people here love him. He was carrying boxes as he walked me inside. ‘These are bullet-proof vests for the rest of the staff here,’ he said. ‘I’ve not been into the centre of Portadown in three years. I just can’t go there.’

MacCionnaith is the leader of this community. In Portadown and all over Ireland and in Downing Street, too, he is thought of as an important and shadowy figure. He is brilliant and fearless. His is an extreme set of circumstances: he lives in the heartland of the dispute, and his fame and his commitment keep him a prisoner here, while also making him a grass-roots hero, a modern Republican with clout on every level. He speaks the language of human rights with soft-voiced clarity.

‘Rosemary and I both grew up in Lurgan,’ he said, ‘she was about six houses down on the opposite side of the street. She was in the year below me at school and I knew her and her sisters well. And then in 1995 she started to work for us during our first stand-off. I was arrested that July for the protest and Rosemary represented me. My case was dismissed, as were the other five coming behind me. And Rosemary would always be present at the strategy meetings we had. She was there at our meeting with Mo Mowlam. She was present at the meeting with Tony Blair. She never let anybody off the hook: she approached everything professionally. And more than us she was acquainted with the law. She was able to identify the various breaches of people’s rights. But she was like that with all her cases. She worked for the travelling people at Craigavon. She was rare.’

MacCionnaith says that Mrs Nelson was abused by the police in July 1997, when an Orange parade was forced through Garvaghy Road. It is alleged that a number of RUC officers were rough with her, that they caused bruising and shouted sectarian remarks when she identified herself as the lawyer for the residents’ coalition. She is reported to have asked for their names and been told to fuck off. ‘In Rosemary’s final statement,’ MacCionnaith continued, ‘she said that the rule of law had broken down in Portadown.’ As he said this he handed me a letter. For legal reasons I can only say the letter was from a senior officer in the RUC. ‘Police in Portadown,’ it said, ‘have provided a 24-hour presence in the area of Craigwell Avenue since July 1998 to date’ – the letter was written on 19 May this year – ‘and this has prevented attacks or direct intimidation of the residents of Craigwell Avenue. In the period from 1 June 1998 to 30 April 1999 police have received no complaints of direct intimidation related to the ongoing protests in Portadown.’

‘It’s a complete lie,’ MacCionnaith said. ‘Shops have been burned. Families have been forced out of their homes. The RUC say there have been no complaints of intimidation but the people here know different.’

MacCionnaith smokes a lot and answers his phone. He seemed relaxed in a button-down shirt and jeans and a shark-tooth jacket. His hair was combed and his brogues were polished. He rocks and holds onto his knees as he speaks. ‘I don’t think you can link Rosemary’s death to any one case,’ he said, ‘whether it’s here’ – he meant Garvaghy Road – ‘or the murder of Robert Hamill, or whatever. I think it was the cumulative effect of all the cases. I think it was the fact that she had taken a number of cases very successfully against the RUC. We said away last year that Rosemary needed protection and she was never given it.’

My notebook was already stuffed with inserts. Bits of napkin, things ripped out of newspapers, scraps of talk and history. I put the letter in with the rest and stood up to go. Before turning I asked MacCionnaith what he would most remember about Rosemary. He stared into the living-room carpet that covered the floor of the small office. ‘There’s that many things,’ he said without looking up. ‘I don’t know. There’s that many things.’

6. Mass at St Peter’s in Lurgan on Good Friday. The smell of wax and the sound of coins falling into the metal box. Men in jeans and short sleeves and tattoos, holding babies, stood at the end of pews as if on guard. This was Rosemary Nelson’s church. The altar seemed high and remote from the back, though the songs were familiar and grave this night. ‘Let us pray,’ the priest said, lifting his hands, ‘for those who serve us in public office, that God may guide their minds and hearts, so that all men may live in true peace and freedom.’ The men with their babies bowed their heads. The smell of incense came up from somewhere – the front, or memory – and you could hear the wind against the doors behind us. The priest looked over his congregation. ‘Almighty and eternal God,’ he said, ‘you know the longings of men’s hearts and you protect their rights. In your goodness watch over those in authority, so that people everywhere may enjoy religious freedom, security and peace.’

His voice went up with the annual swell of Good Friday. I surveyed the rows of young men and women, and the old-age pensioners down by the front, and the bored children, and the church cleaners and the daily attenders, saying, and loudly too, as if in one voice: ‘Amen.’

7. I was in a phone box near Stranraer ringing Northern Ireland. (I couldn’t get a signal for my mobile phone.) On a clear day you can almost see the land over the water – the scene of the Troubles, another world – but the busily devolving Scotland I stood on that day gave no clear view of anything. I wanted to speak with Raymond – he was my contact closest to the extreme Loyalists. The line was ringing ...

8. Several things are already on the record about Rosemary Nelson. On 7 March 1997 she reported that some of her clients just released from Gough Barracks in Armagh had told her that death threats had been made against her by the interrogating detectives. Some of those I spoke to remembered the officers referring to her as ‘a slut’, and saying she got the scar on her face from ‘one of her own bombs blowing up on her’.

On 8 May 1997, as solicitor for the family of Robert Hamill, she announced that she would be taking legal action against RUC officers who had watched, and refused to intervene, as Mr Hamill was beaten to death by a gang of 30 Loyalists in Portadown a month before.

On 5 July 1997 an Orange march was forced along Garvaghy Road. Mrs Nelson, representing the Garvaghy Road Residents’ Coalition, was present. Her clients maintained she was jostled and sworn at by RUC officers on the front line. In October Mr Param Cumaraswamy, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers, began to investigate allegations of intimidation. ‘There have been consistent reports,’ he said, ‘of alleged systematic abuse of defence lawyers in Northern Ireland by certain RUC officers since 1992.’ Ronnie Flanagan, the head of the RUC, said that such allegations were part of a concerted effort by Republicans to portray the RUC as an organisation in cahoots with the Unionist movement.

On 14 January 1998, Mr Cumaraswamy spoke of his concern for the safety of Rosemary Nelson. ‘The RUC has engaged in activities which constitute intimidation, hindrance, harassment or improper interference,’ his published report concluded. He also pointed to the manner in which the RUC ‘identified solicitors with their clients or their clients’ causes as a result of discharging their functions’.

In the course of a meeting in July 1998 between the Garvaghy Road Residents’ Coalition and Jonathan Powell, Chief of Staff to Tony Blair, the personal security of those present was mentioned. Reference was made to a letter doing the rounds in Portadown – I saw this letter – in which death threats were directed at Rosemary Nelson and Brendan MacCionnaith. In late July the Independent Commission for Police Complaints raised some ‘serious concerns’ over the RUC’s handling of its own investigation into death threats against Rosemary Nelson. Commander Niall Mulvihill for the London Met was called in to head an independent investigation into these allegations.

On 12 February this year – a month before her own murder – Mrs Nelson addressed a meeting to mark the tenth anniversary of the murder of Pat Finucane. The Irish Times published a petition signed by 1200 lawyers worldwide calling for a special independent inquiry into allegations of security forces and Loyalist collaboration in the killing of Mr Finucane.

9. Raymond picked up his phone. After a bit I said that Mrs Nelson was killed by a precision bomb. Who were these Red Hand Defenders, I asked, that they could suddenly come up with a bomb so deadly and so sophisticated? ‘Nothing like tins should happen to anybody,’ Raymond said. ‘It’s a terrible thing to happen.’

I wrote what he said on a clean page of the notepad. ‘But who are they that did it?’ I said into the phone. ‘Can I get close to them?’

‘You’re going into pubs,’ he said, ‘don’t walk around in pubs. You’ll quickly find yourself uneasy talking to the Unionists.’

‘Who killed her?’ I said.

He sighed. ‘People are using the sadness of this case to put the boot into the police,’ he said.

‘But ...’

‘Phone me back in a week,’ he said. ‘You’ll have someone to talk to, no bother, someone of the middle ground.’

And click. He put the phone down. Sheep were gathered at the fence outside the phone box. I looked into their faces looking up and left the box to cross the Irish Sea again.

10. In September 1998, Rosemary Nelson made a statement in the American Congress. She was speaking before a sub-committee in the course of the House International Relations Committee Hearing on Human Rights in Northern Ireland. These are passages from the transcript of what she said that day.

‘I have been a solicitor in private practice in Northern Ireland for the past 12 years. For the last ten years I have been representing suspects detained for questioning about politically motivated offences. Since I began to represent such clients and especially since I became involved in a high-profile murder case, I have begun to experience difficulties with the RUC. These difficulties have involved RUC officers questioning my professional integrity, making allegations that I am a member of a paramilitary group and, at their most serious, making threats against my personal safety including death threats ...

‘I have also received threatening telephone calls and letters. Although I have tried to ignore these threats inevitably I have had to take account of the possible consequences for my family and for my staff. No lawyer in Northern Ireland can forget what happened to Patrick Finucane ... the allegations of official collusion in his murder are particularly disturbing and can only be resolved by an independent inquiry into his murder, as has been recommended by the UN Special Rapporteur ...

‘Another reason why RUC officers abuse me in this way is because they are unable to distinguish me as a professional lawyer from the alleged crimes and causes of my clients. This tendency to identify me with my clients has led to accusations by RUC officers that I have been involved in paramilitary activity, which I deeply and bitterly resent. I believe that my role as a lawyer defending the rights of my clients is vital. The test of the new society in Northern Ireland will be the extent to which it can recognise and respect that role, and enable me to discharge it without improper interference. I look forward to that day.’

11. Dara O’Hagan was Mrs Nelson’s best friend. She lives in a housing estate near the Shore Road at the top of Lurgan. She is a councillor: the Sinn Fein member for Upper Bann. Her house has the clean and orderly look of many such houses: carpets for comfort, vertical blinds, a smell of washing and ironing. Framed pictures along the shelf tell of happy nights out with her late friend Rosemary. ‘She was a very private person in a way,’ said Dara O’Hagan, ‘and she didn’t like being in the public eye, although she saw the necessity of it.’

The two women went to the same school, St Michael’s Grammar, and they knew each other’s families from way back. Lurgan is the sort of place where everyone can seem to know everyone else. Dara finished a PhD in politics a few years ago at Queen’s University in Belfast – on community groups – and it was because of this that she got involved with Rosemary Nelson. ‘We formed a very close friendship,’ Dara said, ‘and when she got the mobile home in Donegal I would go up there with them. On that last weekend before she was killed we were up there and I said to her I was worried about her safety. But she had her routines and she knew if they wanted to get her they could.’

I scribbled down some notes about the appearance of the house and flipped over a page. Dara O’Hagan lit another cigarette.

‘She wanted to have a normal life. She wanted her kids especially to have a normal life. She didn’t put her car in the garage because the kids’ snooker table was in the garage. We used to joke about it. We used to say, “I wonder which one of us is going to go first,” and she’d say: “You because you’re the Sinn-er.” But the truth is Rosemary was much more of a threat to those people. She was articulate. She was a good lawyer. She was working within the system and exposing the injustices. She focused internationally on the human rights issues. And she wouldn’t shut up. She was changing the nature of the debate.’

Nelson argued for a fundamental change in the RUC. Even people who aren’t Republicans – just people around here in the broad Nationalist community – would be afraid to phone the police about something like a house break-in. ‘It would be a subject of major concern in any society,’ Ms O’Hagan said, ‘that lawyers were subject to harassment and threats from the police. In one where lawyers were subsequently murdered ...’

Ms O’Hagan stopped speaking for a second. She seemed to be thinking about what it all meant. Outside her windows a dozen or more children were playing. You could hear the jingle of an ice-cream van. She lit another cigarette. My pencil went down to the notepad again. ‘The road you just came up,’ she said, ‘was the road where Rosemary was born. She loved this community. She went to Queen’s in Belfast. She came back here to open her own practice. She just saw herself as an ordinary solicitor. And she was a ground-breaker in a man’s world.’

Rosemary Nelson, Ms O’Hagan went on to say, was a new breed of person in the Northern Ireland struggle, the sort of person who would finally bring the thing to an end, one who wanted to talk solely about rights and laws. She wanted to break with old arguments in pursuit not only of peace but of order. ‘I used to joke with her,’ O’Hagan said, ‘that she would one day be President of a new Ireland.’

She took down some of the photographs and showed them to me. I noted the smiles and the drinks and the look of songs being sung. ‘I really enjoyed Rosemary’s company,’ Ms O’Hagan said.

12. Raymond, my Unionist, wouldn’t come to the phone. I rang him from the bar of the Ashburn Hotel with the News going on in the background. ‘Do we have an agreement?’ the reporter was saying on television. ‘I think we have good reason to be confident of that,’ said Sinn Fein. ‘There are very serious problems with this; we will have to know the detail,’ said the man for the Ulster Unionists. But I couldn’t raise Raymond. He had disappeared. By the time I got to Belfast and phoned him again the line was dead.

13. The Lord Mayor of Cork, Thomas MacCurtain, a known figure in the IRA, was gunned down at his home on 19 March 1920. The late-night callers were three members of the Royal Irish Constabulary. One of them was later identified as District-Inspector Oswald Swanzy. The Chief Secretary for Ireland Sir Hamar Greenwood spoke of ‘policemen who lost their heads’, and Brigadier-General Hubert Gough, a senior soldier in the early days of the Free State, pointed to a problem with the police. ‘Law and order,’ he said, ‘have given place to a bloody and brutal anarchy, in which the armed agents of the Crown violate every law in aimless and vindictive and insolent savagery.’

The Six Counties officially got their own police force with the passing of the 1922 Constabulary Act. A commanding officer of the Ulster Volunteer Force, then as now a paramilitary Loyalist grouping, took on the job of finding recruits for the RUC Specials – the emergency force – and a bond was early established between Unionists and the police. ‘An Orange Lodge confined to members of the RUC was formed in January 1923,’ Chris Ryder writes in RUC: A Force Under Fire. ‘It took the name of the Sir Robert Peel Memorial Loyal Orange Lodge and soon boasted a membership of about three hundred, a tenth of the RUC.’ He later adds: ‘Early in 1936, reflecting the concern among a substantial body of MPs in London, an investigation carried out for the National Council for Civil Liberties by five eminent academics, lawyers and Liberal MPs into the Special Powers Act and the conduct of the RUC reported that the Unionists had created “under the shadow of the British constitution a permanent machine of dictatorship”.’

Since 1969 – when troops entered the Battle of the Bogside in Derry – the view on the Nationalist side has been that the RUC answered only to the British Army. Since 1922 three hundred members of the RUC have been killed by the IRA. Constable George Chambers was shot on 15 December 1972 as he cleared the Kilwilkie estate in Lurgan because of a suspected car bomb. Constable Robert Megaw was shot when his patrol was ambushed in Edward Street in Lurgan. And Constable John Forsyth was blown up in Market Street on 18 June 1974. There have been many others.

The RUC is currently 93 per cent Protestant. The action of Loyalist informers and double agents in Northern Ireland has often involved them in liaising between the Loyalist paramilitary UDA, the RUC and the Army. Brian Nelson, a former soldier who became chief of intelligence in the UDA and a British Army double agent, is said to have passed on to his Army handlers the information that the UDA was intending to kill Finucane. RUC sources say this was indeed the case, but that the information was not passed on to them. Finucane was shot dead at his home on 12 February 1989. The RUC have also claimed that Paddy McGrory, the solicitor representing the three people shot by the SAS in Gibraltar, was the target of a plot that didn’t come off. Although there was advance information about these plots it is alleged that the Army failed to inform the police.

A New Beginning: Policing in Northern Ireland, Chris Patten’s report on the ‘transformation’ of the RUC, was published on 9 September. Patten felt that any comparison with the lowering of the flag at Hong Kong would be inappropriate. His report recommends that the ‘Northern Ireland Police Service’ be cut from 13,000 to 7500 and that the 3000 full-time reservists be disbanded. He further recommends that officers no longer be required to swear allegiance to the Queen; that all badges and symbols be replaced; that the number of Catholics in the Force be doubled within four years; that police boards of 19 members hold the Chief Constable to account; that officers wear name-tags on the outside of uniforms; that police stations be demilitarised; that detention centres for terrorist suspects be closed and video recording introduced in custody sites; that an alternative be found for plastic bullets; and that Union Jacks be removed from outside police stations. David Trimble, the Unionist leader, called the report a ‘gratuitous insult’ to the memory of dead officers. Mo Mowlam, the Northern Ireland Secretary, said there would be a full implementation plan by December.

‘The old days are over,’ a policeman said to me at the Market Cross in Lurgan. ‘Over and gone.’ Meanwhile, some of the people in the town gathered there and sang songs for Rosemary Nelson’s safe journey to the next world.

14. A kind of Republican has arrived who poses a much greater threat to the status quo than any boy with a petrol bomb. The new breed come with clip-folders and highlighter pens, with university degrees and the sanction of the UN and the Congressional Sub-Committee on Human Rights; they come in shirts and ties and polished shoes, or in trouser suits. They look to Brussels, Washington and New York. They speak of ‘parity’ and ‘negotiated settlements’. They talk calmly about outcomes in the glare of camera lights and media feedback. And what they say they say in the tone of their home towns. More effective than any number of speedy young Marxists in balaclavas: it is the generation with the highlighter pens that will see an end to the Troubles.

15. As the boat goes over the water again I start to fall asleep. The waves mess us about. I think of a song – not really a song, a rhythm really, and words come too, with the bobbing about of the boat: ‘My mouth is full of stars, my friend, the stars of the Irish Sea.’ It doesn’t mean anything, but I write it down in the notepad. Later I remember that Michael Collins was shot at a place called Béal mBláth – ‘the mouth of flowers’. Nothing really. Just a thought among other thoughts on the way back to Northern Ireland.

16. The people with highlighter pens and trimmed beards are giving up their dead. It was a beautiful morning in Faughart Cemetery – high over the border – with a view of the hills of Northern Ireland up above, and the green land sloping down to the South and the sea at Dundalk Bay. More than twenty years after his disappearance the remains of Eamon Molloy had turned up in the middle of the night. They were placed in a coffin under a laurel tree on Faughart Hill. The IRA were burying the past.

From up there you could see the Army command posts over the black hills. These were the hills in Patrick Kavanagh’s poems:

My black hills have never seen the sun rising,
Eternally they look north towards Armagh.
Lot’s wife would not be salt if she had been
Incurious as my black hills that are happy
When dawn whitens Glassdrummond chapel.

The headstones were bent and all around them lay roots and bits of stone from the dilapidated dyke. A bunch of six red roses hung on the tree above where Eamon Molloy’s coffin was found. ‘Ask and you will receive,’ it said on a Mass card. ‘Seek and you shall find. Knock and it shall be opened to you.’ All the headstones seemed to be wrapped in nettles and ivy. I wrote these things down in the green notebook and placed it in my bag.

On the slope going down to Dundalk Bay all you could see were the new constructions. White houses going up. Driveways and sandpits and bales of insulation lay clustered about in the valley. A police helicopter went up and down a strip of coast in the distance. It landed at Carlingford. The IRA had pinpointed the grave of another of the disappeared. Jean McConville was 37 years old in 1972; a mother of ten, she was taken from the Divis Flats in Belfast in March of that year. She was said to have given last rites to a dying British soldier after he was shot. Her remains lay somewhere under the beach at Carlingford.

I went there and saw her children looking into a hole. The sea was lapping behind them. And over the sea was another country: one that seemed far away now from these young people looking for signs of their mother in the ground. On the afternoon of a dreadful and impossible exhumation, they seemed almost at peace, with the Royal Ulster Constabulary overhead, the diggers digging, and the thought being blown around with the sand that this might be one of the final chapters in a long book of revelation.

17. Belfast was busy with people at the shops. It was raining and the black clouds seemed to stray down to the street and join your breath. I walked into an old building next to a bank; there were old tiles on the inside walls of the tenement going up to the top. The light seemed to fade as I climbed the stairs. And then I was in a corridor: one of those corridors with glass doors all the way along – something out of Mickey Spillane. I imagined people in each of those offices shuffling paper for a new Ireland. There wasn’t a sound to be heard.

A boy around 17 stood inside the door of the office I wanted. He wore tracksuit bottoms and a T-shirt and had gel on his hair. The paint on the woodwork was peeling and the boy looked lost. I said the name of the person I was there to see. He nodded. And then he took me down a short corridor into a giant room. The solicitor Padraigin Drinan sat behind a battered desk with papers piled so high you could only see her chest and head. But the rest of the room was empty and the floor was covered in phone books and paper-clips and crumpled reports or letters and elastic bands. I sat down. The boy sat behind me.

Padraigin Drinan wore a blue suit and green nail varnish. She is small and quick and unbelievably busy. She is shuffling paper for a modern Ireland. And she is almost alone now in taking on the heaviest civil rights cases in the North. Much of Rosemary Nelson’s workload has fallen to her. She does not have the profile that Rosemary had: there is as much of the old world about her as the new, and she has little time for the niceties of public relations. That is not her bag. You can tell, however, that she works with a steady and reliable highlighter pen. Her clients are her life.

‘Rosemary,’ she said, ‘was very full of fun. She was energetic and hard-working and full of fun. One of the things that surprised me was that she did the same people in Portadown that I did in Belfast; somehow or other we seemed to have got the same sort of clients. Rosemary was the only other woman I know who was doing it. One of the differences between us was that Rosemary did criminal cases on top of everything else. I haven’t done that on principle for 30 years. I don’t know where she got the energy for that. She had a degree of patience that I don’t have: she would still be outraged by things in a way that I wouldn’t be quite so much.’

The boy behind me spoke now and then. He gestured to all the paperwork on Drinan’s desk, ‘If this woman doesn’t do it, it doesn’t get done,’ he said. I asked her about personal threat, ‘I did have the house set on fire, the car blown up, and several other things,’ she said, ‘and I always felt that the security forces ...’ She paused. ‘Sexual comments were always made when I went to see my clients. Rosemary was quite scared. I wasn’t surprised when Rosemary was killed. I saw that there was a fair possibility that it would happen and when I thought about it afterwards I was pretty sure she would get killed. There were so many things she was doing that were coming to a head. It was almost inevitable that she would be. She was doing too much.

‘I don’t like to say this but taking Rosemary out of the way will stop a lot of things they didn’t want to happen. For instance, I don’t know who’s going to take on the private prosecution of the Robert Hamill case because personally there’s only so much you can take on. I don’t like to admit it but killing her has had the effect of making a lot of people withdraw from things. People do get scared. They do go away. I went to see another solicitor in Portadown and he acted like I was a pariah: no way is he going to come near me and the vast majority of people will now back off.’

I asked Padraigin Drinan whether she could characterise the work Rosemary Nelson was doing when she died. She waved her hand over the mass of paperwork on her desk. ‘All this,’ she said. ‘I’m finding it very difficult. I thought I’d do it for the first week or so and then someone would rescue me. No sign of anybody on the horizon. People are prepared to do the criminal work because that’s well paid but Rosemary did a lot of this work for free.’

And aren’t you afraid?

‘I hope they won’t do me because they got such a bad reaction from Rosemary that they won’t risk doing the next one. But I wouldn’t be surprised,’

‘That’s an astonishing thing to say with such equanimity.’

‘I reckon I’ve got this far – I’ve done pretty well,’she said.

All the while she spoke to me she fiddled with a badge on her lapel. It was from Nicaragua: ‘I have a right to Justice. No more impunity.’ A cartoon rainbow went in an are over the words.

‘I just liked the colours,’ she said.

Back in the corridor I wrote some last things in the notebook and put it past for good. It was half full and half empty. I stood for a while in that long corridor with the dim bulbs and the rain coming down on the roof. It was far too cold for June: I stood there thinking of the notebook and everything it told and everything it didn’t tell. In the end there is only the notebook itself and the sound of footsteps along the corridor.