By Ray O’Hanlon (for the Irish News)
An American anniversary passed quietly last week. On April 29 1868, representatives of the United States government and of the Sioux and Arapaho Indian nations signed the Fort Laramie Treaty in Wyoming. Signatories for the United States included General William ecumseh Sherman, a few years on from his civil war triumphs.
Those who set their seal to the treaty on behalf of 10 separate bands of Sioux, as well as the unified Arapaho nation, included Sitting Bull, whose name in his own language was ‘Tah-ton-kah-he-yo-ta-kah’.
Article One of the treaty stated: “From this day forward all war between the parties to this agreement shall forever cease. The government of the United States desires peace, and its honour is hereby pledged to keep it. The Indians desire peace, and they now pledge their honour to maintain it.
Those words were to matter little in the years that followed.
The Laramie Treaty was not the first to be signed with great ceremony only to be overtaken by future events, necessity or outright treachery.
Such, it seems, is the extradition treaty between the United States and United Kingdom, a document that has been revised... and now revised again.
The current treaty was signed in London on June 8 1972.
It was amended by the Supplementary Treaty signed in Washington on June 25 1985 - much to the chagrin of Irish American activists who saw it mainly as a means of scooping up Irish republicans who happened to find their way, by hook or by crook, to America’s shores.
The world being a constantly changing place, the US and British governments have seen fit to revise the treaty yet again.
The new version was signed on March 31 last year by David Blunkett and John Ashcroft, the US attorney general.
A few days before last week’s Laramie Treaty anniversary, the revised extradition document was ‘walked’ by the Bush administration into the US Senate.
It was immediately referred for a hearing to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The committee can expect to hear from the tribes of Irish America on this one.
The first angry smoke signal was raised last year by Professor Francis Boyle of the University of Illinois Law School.
The opposition to the revised treaty has since formed around groups such as the Irish American Unity Conference, the Ancient Order of Hibernians and - beyond the Irish American corral - the American Civil Liberties Union.
An anti-treaty petition from an ad hoc coalition of groups calling itself Irish Americans Against Extradition has been sent to all 19 members of the Foreign Relations Committee.
“There’s no big Irish issue in the (presidential) campaign but if this treaty goes through there will be,” Professor Boyle has stated.
The primary concern for Boyle, and others, is that a revised treaty would be used to specifically target Irish-American political activists.
They claim that the treaty will have a potentially chilling effect on activities linked to the political situation in Northern Ireland.
According to Boyle, the proposed treaty not only does away with the concept of a political-exception clause, it also removes the possibility of judicial review in extradition cases while exposing individuals, including US citizens,
to the threat of extradition to the United Kingdom based on ‘totally unfounded allegations’.
People, he said, could be prosecuted for simply helping people involved in the situation in Northern Ireland.
“The UK government does not need this treaty to get Real or Continuity IRA people,’‘ said Boyle.
“They already can under the current treaty as supplemented in the 1980s.’‘
Not surprisingly, the US government takes issue with all this.
Senator Richard Lugar, who chairs the Foreign Relations Committee, was recently in receipt of a rebuttal letter entitled ‘Response by the US Department of State and the US Department of Justice to points raised by the Irish-Americans against Extradition Petition.’‘
Boyle, in turn, wrote Lugar a letter in which he argued that if the new treaty had been in force back in the 1770s, America’s founding fathers, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, would have been “extradited to the British Crown for prosecution of their very revolutionary activities that founded the United States of America itself.”
The Departments of Justice and State argue in their letter to Lugar that there is ‘nothing novel’ about the provisions in the new treaty with which the Irish-American groups find fault.
They state that the US/UK treaty is not an aberration, but entirely consistent with bilateral extradition treaties between the US and other nations.
The departments mention Spain, South Africa, Poland, France and Lithuania as nations with which the same rules apply.
This initial flurry of point and counterpart is unlikely to resolve much, or soothe troubled minds.
Irish-American objectors, Boyle included, are only concerned with how the treaty might be applied in the context of Northern Ireland.
And Ireland, they feel, has always been in a special category as far as justice and state were concerned.
Richard Lugar, who is from Indiana, is an experienced hand when it comes to foreign policy, but this row has a domestic bent to it as well.
The leader of the minority Democratic Party grouping on the Foreign Relations Committee is Senator Joe Biden from Delaware. Biden has Irish roots.
Another member of the committee has an Irish sounding name - Senator John F Kerry.
The June 25 1985 revision of the extradition treaty stands out for few in terms of its date.
But the aforementioned Sitting Bull would see it as significant.
On that date the Laramie Treaty really went up in smoke.
On that date in 1876 ‘Tah-ton-kah-he-yo-ta-kah’ met with another famous American general, George Custer... and the meeting place was called the Little Big Horn.