By Susan Falvella-Garraty
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Even with the crisis in Kosovo deepening and increasingly occupying the attention of the U.S. government, there is still considerable concern here about the direction in which Northern Ireland is pointed, so much so that former Sen. George Mitchell has left the door open for a return to Belfast as a peacemaker.
The architect of the Good Friday peace agreement, Mitchell told the BBC on Sunday that he is worried that this Friday’s deadline for setting up the North’s Executive will pass without resolution. With UUP leader David Trimble’s support dwindling and the marching season set to start Easter Monday with a parade along the Lower Ormeau Road in Belfast, he and other observers fear that if a deal isn’t struck by the deadline, the agreement will effectively be scuttled.
The main sticking point, of course, remains the decommissioning of paramilitary weapons. Mitchell said from Washington last week that the wording of that topic in the agreements was kept deliberately vague so that it would be palatable enough to be accepted last year by all sides. Now, however, Mitchell said the time has come to fully implement the accord.
"The agreement represented the most that could be achieved at that time," Mitchell said.
As for decommissioning, he said, "It must occur. That’s an essential element in this agreement." It is an issue not just for the IRA, Mitchell told the BBC. "Several pro-British paramilitary groups are also supposed to disarm by May 2000, and only one has begun to do so."
Sign up to The Irish Echo Newsletter
Asked whether he would return the Northern Ireland in an effort to keep the agreement from unraveling, Mitchell said, "If there was some way that it was absolutely essential that I could play some role, obviously I would never say no."
Call for Nelson inquiry
Also in Washington, the same U.S. Congressional committee that heard slain human rights lawyer Rosemary Nelson testify in September of 1998, passed a bill calling for an "RUC-free" inquiry into her murder.
The head of the committee, Republican Congressman Chris Smith of New York, said if the British government had taken United Nations’ recommendations about the RUC more seriously, "Rosemary Nelson might have been better protected and still be with us today."
Nelson was killed by a loyalist car bomb on March 15 in Lurgan, Co. Armagh.
Members of the committee voiced concern that the use of the FBI as a consultant to the inquiry might only rubber stamp an RUC lead investigation.
"In order to remove any questions of impropriety, an outside organization must lead an impartial investigative team, not just offer advice or help," Smith said.
Nelson testified in Washington six months ago, along with fellow Northern Irish defense lawyers Peter Madden and Paul Mageean, about the UN report prepared in March 1998 by the special rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers,
She told the committee members that lawyers who represent nationalist suspects were harassed and threatened by the RUC, and of the 1989 murder of Patrick Finucane, a defender of republican prisoners. Finucane’s killers were never identified and there were allegations of collusion by British security forces and loyalist death squads.
At the time, Nelson said her life had been threatened by members of the RUC and that she had been physically assaulted by RUC officers while representing residents of the Garvaghy Road in Portadown.
"The death of Rosemary Nelson cries out for an investigation, and we will not be held off by agencies in our own government," said Rep. Peter King of New York.
King and several other members of the committee alleged that the U.S. State Department had thwarted attempts to bring the committee’s resolution to the floor of the House prior to the Easter break next week.
The congressman said the State Department was worried that a resolution calling for an independent investigation into the killing of the mother of three might "rock the boat" during tense negotiations over the implementation of the Good Friday accord.
A State Department official called such allegations "ridiculous." Sponsors of the bill predict that the bill will be brought to full vote toward the end of April when Congress returns from its spring break.
Chairman Smith seemed less over the bill’s potential impact on the struggle peace process. "Mo has failed miserably," he said, referring to British Northern Secretary Mo Mowlam.
The only acceptable solutions, the U.S. lawmaker asserted, would be: a judicial inquiry, independent of the RUC, into allegations that defense attorneys are harassed and intimidated by security forces in Northern Ireland, and the implementation of United Nations recommendations for an independent inquiry into the killing of Patrick Finucane.