Taoiseach Bertie Ahern (right) and British Prime Minister Tony Blair signing the Good Friday Agreement in Castle Buildings Belfast on April 10, 1998. Rolling News.ie/pool photo.
By Rep. Chris Smith
Twenty years ago today the Good Friday Agreement was signed – bringing peace to Northern Ireland. The agreement was extraordinarily difficult to achieve, but a remarkable framework for reconciliation.
In the 30 years leading up to the 1998 agreement, approximately 3,500 people were killed in political violence. In the 20 years since the Good Friday Agreement, fewer than 100 have lost their lives to acts of political violence.
Our government did a lot to facilitate the agreement – which was actually two agreements.
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One of them brought together leaders of the nationalist and unionist communities in agreement on protocols for better governance and peaceful resolution of differences.
The other was signed by the British and Irish governments, agreeing on their responsibilities to implement the agreement.
Its achievements over the last 20 years included release of prisoners, creation of new government structures, withdrawal of British military from the North, and the surrender by “paramilitary” or terrorist groups of their weapons.
That is the good news. Yet on the 20th anniversary of the agreement, the reconciliation process has stalled, the communities are drifting farther apart, and the parties of Northern Ireland have been unable to form a government for over a year.
To move forward, serious attention and effort needs to be paid to the unfinished business – aspects of the agreement that have never been implemented, or only partially.
Long-standing cases of murder, torture, and other abuses from the “Troubles” have not been resolved, especially the state-sponsored collusion in the murder of human rights attorney Patrick Finucane.
Collusion refers to the practice of governments placing or recruiting informers in criminal organizations, knowing that its agents are committing crimes yet doing nothing to stop them or even limit the harm they cause so as not to expose them as informers.
As Geraldine Finucane, widow of Patrick, pointed out in her testimony at a March 22 hearing I chaired on “The Good Friday Agreement at 20”: “My family has campaigned for a public inquiry into Pat’s murder, but the British government has repeatedly failed to establish one. Instead, they have instigated one confined investigation after another, claiming to want to examine the facts or get to the truth, but always in a process conducted away from public view. One cannot but wonder at the pointlessness of conducting investigation after investigation that are doomed to fail, no matter how forceful the conclusions, because they lack the transparency required to attain public confidence.”
There has been a manifest lack of accountability for crimes committed during the “Troubles,” above all those involving collusion by the British government in paramilitary murders.
As a member of Congress, I have personally chaired 16 congressional hearings and markups of legislation on Northern Ireland, beginning in 1997.
I have focused on police reform and the need to establish a public, independent judicial inquiry into state-sponsored collusion in the Finucane murder and others who were gunned down or, in the case of Rosemary Nelson, killed by a bomb.
I have repeatedly offered legislation adopted by the House of Representatives that put the House on record condemning violence and promoting peace and justice in Northern Ireland.
Just recently, I introduced H.Res.777 which calls for the United States, the British, and all parties, including the Republic of Ireland, to recommit to the peace process.
This resolution also calls for the Administration to re-appoint a Special Envoy for Northern Ireland during this critical time. That would send a concrete signal that the U.S. is ready to re-engage in the peace process it did so much to facilitate in the 1990s.
Congressman Chris Smith (R-NJ) is a Senior Member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Chairman of the Subcommittee on Global Human Rights, and a co-chair of the Ad Hoc Congressional Committee for Irish Affairs.