By Anne Cadwallader
and Ray O’Hanlon
BELFAST — U.S. diplomatic bodyguards were called to intervene in a blazing row between Congressman Peter King and an anti-agreement unionist during a Stormont reception last Thursday.
The incident took place during a lunchtime function for a high-powered U.S. delegation led by Rep. Ben Gilman, chairman of the House International Relations Committee.
The man with whom King became entangled was Roger Hutchinson, a low-profile but outspoken former member of Robert McCartney’s U.K. Unionist Party. Hutchinson is now a member of the Northern Ireland Unionist Party.
According to King, Hutchinson approached him and said he would refuse to shake the congressman’s hand, calling him an "ignorant fool and a murderer."
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After several minutes of verbal abuse, King says he retorted to Hutchinson: "Why don’t you go f . . . yourself?" Hutchinson then tried to get King ejected from the reception.
He approached the Assembly’s presiding officer, Lord John Alderdice, who was hosting the event, loudly repeating what King had told him and demanding King be "thrown out."
Sammy Wilson of the Democratic Unionist Party then confronted King with a list of human rights abuses allegedly committed by the New York City police force. He claimed King had never once made complaints about these at home in the U.S.
When the two State Department security officers traveling with the U.S. delegation approached, Hutchinson remonstrated with them, saying: "Don’t you touch me. Get back where you belong. We don’t want you here."
King decided to leave the room and as he tried to do so, still being harangued by Hutchinson, he passed by two SDLP Assembly members, John Dallat and Eugene McMenamin.
"My view on the incident is that this was a high-powered U.S. delegation and we should have treated them with respect. We need all the U.S. help we can get in creating jobs," Dallat said.
McMenamin said he advised Hutchinson to "have some manners." Reflecting on the incident, he said: "This is the last sort of thing we need in the Assembly. The room was full of U.S. congressmen. We should welcome all visitors to Ireland. . . . This sort of behavior is just not good enough."
King finally left the room, but the incident did not end.
"I was followed down the hall by shouting and more threats to have me thrown out," he said. "I have been visiting Northern Ireland for 15 years and can take care of myself, but other members of the delegation were quite shocked at what was childish and rude behavior."
King was also called, during the course of the day, a "bigoted political thug" by the Ulster Unionist Party’s security spokesman, Ken Maginnis, and as a "Provo groupie" by fellow UUP man Michael McGimpsey.
"It is surprising that anyone should consider giving credence to anything which Rep. Peter King might say. His partisan and bigoted attitude to unionists has, throughout the many years of violence, consistently encouraged and sustained the worst elements of militant republicanism," Maginnis said.
Maginnis accused King of endorsing an IRA mortar attack on Newry RUC station in 1985 when nine police officers were killed. "His support for such atrocities puts him firmly in the category of political thug," Maginnis said.
Earlier, the congressional delegation had received a tough grilling from journalists attending a press conference at which a congressional report on the RUC was unveiled.
The report comprises transcripts of testimony and other submissions from a hearing on "New and Acceptable Policing in Northern Ireland," held last April by the House International Relations Committee.
Unionists have been highly critical of the report, which advocates root and branch reform of the RUC, saying the witnesses who gave evidence to the committee were biased in favor of nationalists.
The delegation said it had invited unionists and the RUC, through the British embassy in Washington, to attend the April hearing. It also invited the RUC directly.
At one stage during the press conference there was loud and raucous laughter from one journalist. Others took offense at what they saw as an attempt by one member of the U.S. party to "preach" to them about the vital role of the press in uncovering civil and human rights abuses.
One U.S. visitor later described it as "rough day" but one which had also revealed the depth of antagonism and anger felt toward those who advocate RUC reform.
"They are in denial of the real need to reform the policing service. It was a disappointment to us that the substance of what we are saying was overlooked in a welter of name-calling" said one senior member of the delegation.
Rep. Gilman said it was the belief of the Congress members who had compiled the RUC report that there had never been a police service in Northern Ireland truly acceptable to the Catholic and nationalist community and the testimony of witnesses in April had "abundantly confirmed" this view.
"The historic anti-Catholic/nationalist ethos of policing in the north of Ireland must be totally eradicated and a new police service must be strictly impartial, truly representative of the whole community and fully accountable to all of its citizens," Gilman said.
Gilman’s sentiments were reflected in a letter presented by the delegation to Chris Patten, chairman of the Independent Commission on Policing in Northern Ireland.
The letter was signed by a number of leading congressional members from both main parties including Gilman, House Speaker Dennis Hastert and Minority Leader Richard Gephardt.
"Never before has such a letter on the RUC been signed by the entire bipartisan top leadership of the U.S. House of Representatives," commented Fr. Sean McManus of the Washington D.C.-based Irish National Caucus.
McManus said the letter represented a "scorching indictment" of the RUC and left the British government in no doubt as to where the U.S. Congress stood.