Catholic News Service photo
A man walks his dog past a loyalist mural in East Belfast, Northern Ireland.
Catholic News Service photo
A man walks his dog past a loyalist mural in East Belfast, Northern Ireland.
WASHINGTON — Peace progress in Northern Ireland has stalled because of government secrecy and lingering injustice, according to witnesses at a congressional hearing.

Former U.S. diplomat Richard Haass told the House subcommittee on global human rights that calling the nation a model of peacebuilding was "premature."

"The passage of time will not by itself heal Northern Ireland's society," Haass said.

As chairman of the independent Panel of Parties in the Northern Ireland Executive, Haass created a proposal to move the peace process forward. It was rejected on New Year's Eve of last year.

Part of the proposal recommended creating a single, independent mechanism to investigate unsolved conflict-related murders and other crimes. Today, victims of conflict-related crime and their families face a confusing web of institutions and vehicles for justice. Frequently, their cases are incompletely investigated or go unheard.

"There can be forgiveness, but that does not preclude justice," said subcommittee chairman U.S. Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J.

Government collusion in conflict-related deaths makes an open and thorough process especially necessary. The British Military Reaction Force, an undercover unit in Belfast, admitted to shooting unarmed citizens in drive-by attacks between 1971 and 1973.

Eugene Devlin was the victim of one such attack. Returning home with a friend from a school dance, Devlin was shot in the arm by a plainclothes MRF agent. "My arm saved my life," Devlin told the subcommittee in Washington.

Police forensics later determined that neither Devlin nor his friend had carried weapons which could have provoked the attack. "These shootings were unjustified, and remain unjustifiable," he said.

Geraldine Finucane also testified at the hearing. In 1989, her husband, Pat Finucane, was shot 14 times as he sat eating a meal at their Belfast home with their three children.

His murder was allegedly accomplished with government collusion, and inspired public outcry in Europe and abroad. The British government has yet to hold a full public inquiry into his death.

Mrs. Finucane explained that families like hers were left with "a deep, deep wound" that could only be healed through government transparency.

"We wanted, and still want, one inquiry that is open and fair," she said. "It would be a first step in restoring public confidence in our society."

President Barack Obama said that he was disappointed by the recent failure of all-party talks in Northern Ireland to reach an agreement in the peace process. Meeting with Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny at the White House March 14, the president urged the political parties to "continue to work and negotiate." He expressed hope that politicians in Northern Ireland would "take the next steps that are necessary to finally bring an end to what so often has been a tragic history."

This April marks the 16th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, which was signed April 10, 1998. The agreement, between the British and Irish governments and political representatives of the region's Catholic and Protestant communities, ended 30 years of sectarian violence and committed all sides to exclusively peaceful political activism.

The agreement established a cross-community power-sharing government based in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

Irish nationalists, most of whom are Catholic, want Northern Ireland to become part of the Republic of Ireland and form a single united Ireland. Unionists, most of whom are Protestant, want the region to remain part of Britain. The agreement provides for an eventual referendum process to establish the wishes of all the people about the constitutional future of Northern Ireland.