By Susan Falvella-Garraty and Ray O’Hanlon
WASHINGTON, D.C. — The deep well of mistrust between nationalists in Northern Ireland and the Royal Ulster Constabulary was vividly illustrated in Washington last week in a hearing held by the House International Relations Committee.
Witnesses from Northern Ireland, Irish Americans and human rights activists testified Thursday that the RUC is responsible for multiple abuses of the law ranging from intimidation to murder.
In a packed, standing-room-only Capitol Hill hearing room, witnesses followed one another in condemning the performance of the Northern Ireland police force and its officers.
Toni Carragher of the South Armagh Farmers and Residents Committee alleged that the RUC murdered eight nationalists in the 1970s.
Carragher herself, held at one time by the RUC, paid tribute to the recently murdered lawyer Rosemary Nelson.
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"Just like Rosemary, they threatened me — they put a gun to my head," she told the largely sympathetic audience and committee members.
"God knows what I’ll get for coming here today, but what the hell," she said.
The hall outside the hearing room was lined with those awaiting a seat inside. Many were wearing yellow "Just Say No to RUC" buttons handed out by the Irish National Caucus.
Diane Hamill, sister of murder victim Robert Hamill, told the committee that in the light of her brother’s brutal killing — while members of the RUC allegedly looked on — a wholesale change had to be made for the force to be able to function in a post-Good Friday peace agreement era.
"Since the loss of Robert, I have been at the receiving end of how they treat a Catholic who refuses to accept their impunity or apparent invincibility and lack of accountability to anyone except themselves," Hamill told the committee.
"The RUC has a duty to protect all sections in Northern Ireland. They chose not to do so on the night of April 27, 1997," she said in reference to the date when her brother was beaten to death by loyalists in Portadown.
In response, Rep. Ben Gilman, chairman of the committee, pointed to the fact that despite the beating having been witnessed by the RUC, no report had been filed. "Such indifference is hard for anyone here to imagine," he said.
Msgr. Raymond Murray of Cookstown, Co. Tyrone, an author and chairperson of Relatives for Justice, told the committee that reform of the RUC is paramount if peace is to secured.
"For that to take place, it will be critical that everyone have confidence in the police force," Murray said. "Removing any secret society emblems from police uniforms and banning police force membership in such organizations as the Orange Order is critical."
There were no representatives of the RUC or British government present as witnesses. Chris Patten, chairman of the commission assessing the future the RUC, was invited but declined to attend the hearing.
Peter Smyth of the Northern Ireland Bureau in the British Embassy and Anne Smith, administrator at the Ulster Unionist Party’s Washington office, were in attendance as observers among a sea of anti-RUC button-wearing audience members.
A British embassy official said that one unionist leader had been prevented from giving testimony at the hearing. "Ken Maginnis [of the UUP] wanted to testify, which would have offered some balance, but they wouldn’t let him," the official said.
Committee staff and members disputed the claim, saying that Maginnis had been invited to come to the hearing earlier this year. "He said he didn’t want to come," said a staff member who did not want to be identified.
No representatives of any of the North political parties testified. "We were really trying to stay away from politics and concentrate on policing," the staff member said.
The death of Rosemary Nelson was highlighted during the hearing by Hayla Gowan of Amnesty International. She told the committee that Nelson’s murder typified the concerns her organization had highlighted over the last five years.
"No measures to ensure that lawyers might no longer be threatened or intimidated through their clients have been undertaken by authorities despite repeated requests for them to do so," she testified.
It’s like a cancer," said Rep. Chris Smith, a New Jersey Republican and member of the committee. "The RUC’s fundamental nature is just wrong."
In a concluding statement, Gilman said it was "self-evident" that the RUC needed to be replaced.
"It is my sincere hope that we do not merely see from the Patten Commission minimalist and symbolic reforms that seek to appease the dominant unionist establishment in the North, while leaving this institution in tack as we know it today," Gilman said.
Against the backdrop of the RUC hearing, the House of Representatives passed a resolution requesting an independent inquiry into the car bomb murder of Rosemary Nelson.
In a non-binding Sense of Congress resolution, the House approved, by a 421-2 vote, a call for an investigation into the March 15 death of Nelson. The resolution also urged an independent probe into the murder 10 years ago of another Northern Irish lawyer Patrick Finucane.
Nelson testified before a House subcommittee last September that she had been assaulted, threatened with bodily harm, and generally harassed by members of the RUC.
Meanwhile, a Dublin Sunday newspaper, the Sunday Business Post, reported that the FBI is to play no further role in the Nelson murder investigation.
Special Agent John Guido, who is based at the FBI’s office in London, had traveled to Belfast at one point along with three other agents to offer the RUC technical assistance in the murder probe.
Guido told the Business Post that the FBI would be playing no further role in the investigation unless invited to do so by RUC Chief Constable Ronnie Flanagan.
The FBI has offices in about 35 cities around the world. A call to the London office made by the Echo had not been returned by press time.