By Susan Falvella-Garraty
WASHINGTON, D.C. — The House International Relations Committee will hold hearings in mid-April on the stalled implementation of the Good Friday agreement.
Committee staff said they had secured a promise from British Northern Secretary Peter Mandelson to testify at the hearing when Mandelson visited here over St. Patrick’s Day.
However, British officials are now backing away from any plan to have Mandelson testify at the hearing, which will be chaired by Rep. Ben Gilman, the New York Republican.
"It is true the committee has invited him to give evidence at the meeting," said Bob Pearson, a spokesman for the British Embassy in Washington. "It would be quite odd for any member of a foreign government to give evidence."
The committee held hearings a year ago on the reform of the North’s almost exclusively Protestant police force, the RUC, and endorsed the findings of the Patten Commission, which include a recommendation that the force recruit more Catholics.
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Members of the International Relations Committee met with Mandelson after the House speaker’s St. Patrick’s Day luncheon and decried his decision to suspend the Northern Ireland’s Executive and urged immediate restoration of its powers.
The vote by the Ulster Unionist Party last weekend against any reinstitution of the power-sharing Executive if the policing reforms of the RUC are fully implemented has further outraged some committee members. They plan to publicly air their disquiet at the April hearing.
"The UUP vote against RUC reform as a new precondition to shared governance makes it clear the unionists have looked at what the reality of the Good Friday accord means: real change and power sharing with the nationalist/Catholic Minority," Gilman said. "They apparently don’t like what they see and have no intention of living up to their terms of the negotiated bargain."
Despite the British distancing themselves from an appearance by Mandelson at the hearing, committee staff are pursuing efforts to effectively secure his participation via a video-link. If the issue of a foreign government official testifying before a congressional committee — an act foreign government officials have performed on many occasions — remains a primary concern, the committee could offer to step away from its official capacity and offer a "meeting" between its members and Mandelson.
The author of the Patten report, former Hong Kong Gov. Chris Patten, was afforded this opportunity when he answered questions posed by the International Relations Committee last year.
Also on Capitol Hill this past week, an audible sigh of relief as the new House chaplain was installed.
Accusations that anti-Catholic bias was behind the Republican leadership’s selection of a Protestant clergyman as chaplain had dogged House Speaker Dennis Hastert and other GOP leaders in recent months.
On Thursday, Rev. Daniel Coughlin, a Catholic priest from Chicago, was sworn in to be the first Catholic chaplain specifically assigned to the House.
The speaker’s press secretary, John Fehrey, said there was relief now the matter of the chaplaincy had been resolved amicably.
There was uproar late last year when it emerged that the favorite choice of a House selection committee, Catholic priest Fr. Timothy O’Brien, was rejected at the last hurdle by Speaker Hastert and both the House majority and minority leaders. Fr. O’Brien added fuel to the fire when he expressed to the New York Times his belief that if he were not a Catholic priest he would have been made chaplain.
The Rev. Charles Wright, a Presbyterian minister, was put forward by Speaker Hastert as prospective chaplain at the time. Accusations of sectarian bigotry followed. Rev. Wright withdrew himself as a candidate last week but not before Speaker Hastert accused House Democrats of exploiting the controversy in "an unseemly political game."