Congressman Chris Smith.
By Irish Echo Staff
Although the Good Friday Agreement, signed twenty years ago on April 10, established a foundation for peace and justice for the future of Northern Ireland, critical parts of the agreement have not been fully implemented to this day, a hearing by the congressional Commission for Security and Cooperation in Europe (Helsinki Commission) found on Thursday of last week.
A strong rejection of a recent British proposal to institute a statute of limitations on cases involving abuses by British soldiers during the Troubles, as well as calls to re-appoint a U.S. Special Envoy to Northern Ireland were two of the main themes at the hearing, stated a release.
“The signing of the Good Friday Agreement twenty years ago was truly historic, extraordinarily difficult to achieve, a remarkable framework for peace and the hoped-for beginning of reconciliation,” said Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ), who chaired the hearing on “The Good Friday Agreement at 20: Achievements and Unfinished Business.”
Some of the successful results of the historic Northern Ireland Good Friday Agreement included prisoner releases, police reform, British demilitarization of Northern Ireland, and the decommissioning of paramilitary weapons, Smith said at the hearing.
“However, serious obstacles still remain to achieving peace in the region, including the lack of accountability for abuses committed during the Troubles including collusion by the British government in murders committed,” said Smith, who has held sixteen hearings and markups on the issue since 1997.
“Many conflict-related deaths, injuries, and abuses have not been adequately dealt with,” Smith said.
And he continued: “This failure of accountability has been marked by the UK government’s insistence on a national security exemption in investigations and inquiries into past acts of violence committed, and by a recent plan by the UK government to introduce a statute of limitations on cases involving British soldiers during the Troubles,” in its consultation on the Stormont House Agreement Bill.
“The ongoing impunity sends a signal of ongoing disrespect for the human rights and dignity of people in Northern Ireland, particularly from the Irish community, as no one imagines that British security services would be given impunity for crimes committed against British subjects in England.”
Brian Gormally, director of the Committee on the Administration of Justice, stated at the hearing that the British government’s recent proposal for a statute of limitations on past cases involving British soldiers “effectively means a selective amnesty for crimes committed by British soldiers.”
Judge James McKay, National president of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, told the hearing: “The U.S. must continue to support and guide the full implementation of the Good Friday agreement, and the administration can show this foremost by appointing a new Special Envoy to Northern Ireland,
“This is an extremely critical time for Northern Ireland, and as political parties continue to attempt to form a sustainable government while addressing the fears and anxieties of Brexit, we believe that America must reaffirm through the presence of a special envoy that the peace and well-being of the community of the North of Ireland is still a priority to the U.S.,” Judge McKay stated.
Witnesses at the hearing insisted upon the need for police reform and accountability for crimes committed during the Troubles, including collusion by the British government.
Mark Thompson of the group Relatives for Justice, said the practice of former Royal Ulster Constabulary police officers transferring over to the current Police Service of Northern Ireland and holding senior civilian positions where they can control investigations that families of victims of the Troubles are advocating for.
“Taken together with the position of the PSNI moreover on legacy, this has had a corrosive effect on nationalist confidence in policing which is now at an all-time low,” Thompson testified.
Congressman Smith has previously chaired hearings on the need to establish a public, independent, judicial inquiry into state-sponsored collusion in the murder of human rights attorney and activist Pat Finucane. The inquiry was a subject of discussion at Thursday’s hearing.
“My family has campaigned for a public inquiry into Pat’s murder but the British Government has repeatedly failed to establish one,” Geraldine Finucane, wife of Pat Finucane, stated in a written testimony for the hearing.
“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.”
Congressman Brendan Boyle said that some in London had made comments about the Good Friday Agreement to the effect of that this doesn’t need to last, it wasn’t meant to be set up forever.
“This is a very disturbing backsliding the likes of which we have not heard for the previous nineteen years,” the Philadelphia Democrat said.
“Former prime minister John Major was right when he spoke out against such dangerous rhetoric.”
Rep. Boyle said there was zero support in Washington for returning to the days before the agreement. The agreement was not perfect, but it was important to stress its achievements.