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Britain remains object of suspicion and mistrust

(Ray O'Hanlon, Irish News)

The great majority of ex-British servicemen who spent time in Japanese prisoner of war camps have for years presented an unforgiving face towards their one-time jailers.

Take it up to the present and it is all too easy to discern the lingering mistrust in Northern Ireland that remains part and parcel of what is now the peace process.

Just mention the Provos in proximity to a DUP member. He or she will not burst into songs of praise.

The same can be said for the more seasoned veterans of Irish-American activism as it has been directed at the events in Ireland over the last few decades.

The British government, no matter what party guise it comes in, remains an object of suspicion and distrust.

This has been plainly evident in the battle by leading Irish-American activists and organisations to turn back, or at least have amended, the revised extradition treaty between the US and United Kingdom.

The treaty came up for a vote on Capitol Hill last week before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Irish-American groups, such as the Irish American Unity conference and Ancient Order of Hibernians, were represented in the hearing room. They were supported in their objections to the treaty by the influential American Civil Liberties Union.

But it turned out to be a tough day for the distrusting critics.

The senators, Republican and Democrat, unanimously voted to support the revamped treaty and send it onwards for a vote in the full 100-member Senate.

That vote is expected before year's end and it's hard to imagine anything other than a resounding affirmation of a document that has been gathering dust, much to the annoyance of her majesty's government, since it was signed by US attorney general John Ashcroft and then home secretary David Blunkett in March 2003.

In his remarks at the signing ceremony, Ashcroft made no specific reference to any conflict, group or country.

British government representatives have repeatedly denied that the treaty was drawn up with Northern Ireland or Irish-American activists in mind.

In a July visit to Washington, minister of state Baroness Scotland sent a letter to each of the 18 members of the Foreign Relations Committee.

In the letter, she stated that full Senate approval was of "paramount importance".

What was at stake, the baroness told senators, was "not only the continued status of the US as a 'trusted partner' for extradition but also the perception in the UK of how the British/US relationship worked in practice".

The baroness stated that the purpose of the treaty was to "modernise" extradition arrangements. It was not, she said, aimed at speeding up the extradition from the US of people "suspected of involvement in terrorism" connected with Northern Ireland.

"The concerns about the treaty raised by certain Irish-American groups are groundless," she stressed.

Groundless or not, two leading members of the committee, its Republican chairman Senator Richard Lugar and Democrat Chris Dodd, sought some extra assurances from London.

At last week's hearing, however, they might as well have been Chamberlains waving paper as far as the Irish-Americans activists in the room were concerned.

Lugar indicated that he was quite satisfied with the soothing words from London.

Senator Dodd, who has been a close supporter of Irish-American causes over the years, said that a series of 11th-hour letters exchanged between the US attorney general, Alberto Gonzalez and Peter Hain had reassured him that Irish-American opponents of British policy in the north would be safe from extradition.

This didn't impress James Caldwell of the IAUC.

"It's a really bad day. We're looking at a treaty where once that knot is tied it's going to be very, very difficult to untie it. The executive branch at this point appears to hold all the aces. I believe that this is a very unconstitutional day for Americans," he said.

At the heart of the argument is a revised treaty provision transferring ultimate authority for extraditions from the federal courts to the executive branch of government.

"If the new treaty were ratified, an American who opposed British policy – for example an investigative journalist who wrote of police abuses in Northern Ireland for an Irish-American newspaper – could face arrest and extradition without having any ability to challenge, in an American court, whether the criminal charges are really a pretext for the punishment on account of race, religion, nationality or political opinion," the ACLU said in a prepared statement.


September 18, 2006

This article appeared first in the September 13, 2006 edition of the Irish News.

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