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House Legislation

Hearing on Human Rights
in Northern Ireland

March 15, 2001

Statement Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney

Hearing on Human Rights in Northern Ireland

International Operations and Human Rights Subcommittee of the House International Relations Committee

I want to thank Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen for recognizing the importance of this crucial period in the history of Northern Ireland. I also want to praise the Vice Chair of this Subcommittee, Chris Smith, for his passion and work to bring true justice to the people of Northern Ireland.

Today is a very special day of remembrance, as it was two years ago to this day, March 15, 1999, that Rosemary Nelson, a leading human rights lawyer in Northern Ireland, was killed by a car bomb.

Ms. Nelson had been consistently exposing the corruption of the Royal Ulster Constabulary. A brilliant human rights lawyer, she had been involved directly in a number of key human rights cases. The sympathy notices in the local newspapers the day of her murder in that region clearly indicated the wide range of causes she had taken up. We must not forget Rosemary's work. Indeed, we must make sure that Rosemary's work continues. We must also see to it that an authoritative international tribunal be put together to investigate this freedom fighter's murder.

I have advocated civil rights in Northern Ireland during all my years in Congress. Nationalists in Northern Ireland have identified with black American civil rights activists for years. Ties between the two struggles go back for over a century, from the time escaped black slave Frederick Douglass arrived in Ireland in 1845 to campaign for support for the antislavery movement in the U.S. Douglass addressed a political meeting with Daniel O'Connell at Liberty Hall in Dublin, and rallied support for the abolitionist cause in Tipperary, Wexford, and Belfast.

By the mid-1960's, many young Nationalists in Northern Ireland drew parallels between their struggle and the push for civil rights by blacks in the United States. In many ways the two movements have faced similar challenges-both grappling with the limits of non-violence. Protestors at the first filmed civil rights march in Northern Ireland, Derry on October 5, 1968, echoed the demands of black Americans in calling for police reform, in chanting "One Man, One Vote," and in singing "We Shall Overcome." Two weeks after Bloody Sunday in 1972, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, founded by Dr. Martin Luther King, dispatched the senior officials to Belfast to take part in protest marches and to speak at a Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) meeting.

Bernard Lee, a veteran of the Atlanta sit-ins and a close associate of Dr. King's, was part of the group which included Juanita Abernathy, wife of the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, another key King confidante. Juanita Abernathy told the NICRA conference that "the struggle for Irish freedom is the same struggle as that going on in the United States."

The April 1998 Good Friday Peace Agreement took eighteen months just to begin to be implemented. Governmental institutions were dissolved after only seventy-four days, and were restarted in June of 2000. The new governmental structures are in constant danger of collapse, and, some would say, sabotage. When the people of Ireland endorsed the Good Friday Agreement they did so in the belief that it would be a charter for change and that a range of measures including the equality agenda and a new beginning to policing would be delivered.

The policing issue was always a cornerstone issue. The Good Friday Agreement is very clear on the mandate for fair and impartial policing. The referendum also endorsed these terms. But, sadly, these terms of reference were not implemented. As a result, the Royal Ulster Constabulary remains 93% Protestant and 90% white male with little community input and no affirmative action.

Indeed, the British newspaper, The Guardian, comments in November of last year at the close of the legislative processing of the British Government's "Police Act," that "the core elements of the Patten Commission's report have been undermined everywhere. The district policing partnership boards that are so vital to the Patten Commission's vision have been diluted. So have its recommendations in the key areas outlined in its terms of reference composition, recruitment, culture, ethos, and symbols. The Patten report has not been cherry picked-it has been gutted."

The Patten Commission Report would, if implemented, parallel the historic Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in which the United States took important first steps toward ending legal segregation-U.S.-styled apartheid-and second-class status for African-Americans. Now the question is: Will Parliament in Northern Ireland change this abomination and grant full civil rights to Irish Catholics or are they to remain second class citizens in their own land?

When good and decent people live in fear of the very instrument created to protect them, then there is a major violation of freedom for everyone in that nation.

The Royal Ulster Constabulary and their tactics of violence have been likened to Bull Connor and George Wallace in Alabama during the Civil Rights movement. And just as justice soon overtook even Bull Conner and George Wallace, I'm sure that oppression and illegitimacy are not sustainable in Northern Ireland. The Royal Ulster Constabulary should be part of the solution, not part of the problem.

This is a very important issue. I understand the solidarity that the IRA has demonstrated in my own struggle as an African-American to be free-a full citizen in my own land-as they have also stood in solidarity with my brothers and sisters on the African Continent to be free of colonial rule-something they both, sadly, know too much about.

I look forward to hearing from the witnesses who have come before us.

Thank you, Madame Chair.

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