Washington — The United States is facing tough choices as it considers how best to help break the cycle of violence that grips Northern Ireland. One choice involves money. Congress is being asked in an era of budget stringency to fund a proposed five-year, $250 million aid package to Northern Ireland, the first-ever US economic assistance package to that region. Supporters of the aid say it is necessary to bolster a recent Anglo-Irish peace accord designed to end years of sectarian strife in Northern Ireland.
Meanwhile, the Senate is considering whether to ratify a 1985 extradition treaty between the US and Britain. The treaty would require the US to turn over to British authorities fugitives charged with crimes stemming from the conflict in Northern Ireland.
Critics of the treaty say it is not an appropriate US response to political violence in Northern Ireland. They contend that by defining politically motivated crimes as extraditable offenses, the US is effectively eliminating the time-honored distinction between terrorists and legitimate freedom fighters.
The critics point out that courts have already established a ``wanton crimes'' exception to the traditional ``political-crimes defense'' to extradition. Under that exception, the US, for instance, surrendered to Britain an Irish Republican Army (IRA) member charged with sending letter bombs through the mails in London.
Supporters of the treaty, led by the Reagan administration, insist that restricting the ``political crimes'' defense to extradition is a necessary step in the war against international terrorism. They say the treaty, combined with the aid package, will contribute to the end of fighting between Roman Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland that since 1969 has spawned 40,000 incidents of violence and claimed more than 2,500 lives.
``The extradition treaty will help reduce violence, making it easier to attract new investment'' to Northern Ireland, says Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Richard G. Lugar (R) of Indiana. ``The aid package will reduce violence by directly stimulating economic development. Together, they comprise the essential US response to the Irish question,'' Senator Lugar says.
Wishing to show its appreciation for British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's support for the US air raid against Libya last month, the Reagan administration recently stepped up its drive to win Senate approval of the extradition treaty. If passed by two-thirds of the Senate, the treaty would make it difficult for members of the IRA accused of terrorism to find sanctuary in the US.
Responding to concern voiced in the Senate, Reagan officials insist that extradition treaties will be negotiated only with ``genuine democracies,'' where fair legal treatment to the accused can be assured.
Critics of the Reagan treaty want to limit the list of offenses requiring automatic extradition to crimes specifically associated with terrorism, such as hijackings and bombings of civilians. In other cases, extradition decisions would continue to be made on a case-by-case basis.
``All we're doing is trying to define how that political-exception doctrine will apply,'' says Sen. John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts, a critic of the Reagan treaty.
Opponents say they will also seek to ensure that decisions in extradition cases are left in the hands of US courts and not turned over to the State Department, as called for in the Reagan draft treaty.
``We want [extradition] decisions made in open court, where they've been made for the last 150 years, and not behind closed doors at the State Department, where they'll be tied to political considerations,'' says a spokesman for Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D) of Delaware.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee will meet early next month to reconcile differences over the treaty -- a condition, Senate Republicans say, to moving forward on the matter of US aid to Northern Ireland.
In March the foreign-affairs committees in both houses approved differing versions of an aid package to Northern Ireland. The money would be used to help revitalize the region's economy, because high unemployment there has contributed to political extremism.
Congressional sources say a compromise aid package containing a mix of direct grants and loan guarantees should eventually be passed. But daunting budget hurdles will have to be cleared first.
``I know the pressures of Gramm-Rudman,'' says Margaret M. Heckler, US ambassador to Ireland, referring to the US deficit-reduction law. ``But in the light of history this is a small amount to invest in a situation that has cried out for reconciliation and support. To turn our backs on the first realistic constitutional way to address the differences between the two traditions in Northern Ireland is to deny our own sense of morality.''
The aid package is also intended as a show of support for President Garrett FitzGerald of the Republic of Ireland and John Hume, the head of Northern Ireland's Social Democratic and Labor Party. Backers of the aid plan say that Mr. FitzGerald and Mr. Hume, in agreeing to the Anglo-Irish accord last fall, have taken sizable political risks to bring peace to Ulster.
``It's possible to argue about the economic impact of the aid,'' adds Robert Mahony, director of Catholic University's Center for Irish Studies. ``But defeat of the aid package could only be interpreted as a major setback for the accord.''
The accord gives Dublin a formal consultative role in the affairs of Northern Ireland and reaffirms Britain's willingness to support the preference of the majority there, either for union with the United Kingdom or as part of a unified Ireland. The accord also seeks to redress patterns of discrimination in Northern Ireland that have relegated Ulster's 40 percent Catholic minority to a form of second-class citizenship.
In return, Dublin agrees to respect British sovereignty over Northern Ireland as long as the majority there wants it.
``It's a very important beginning and hopefully the inauguration of a new era,'' Ambassador Heckler says of the accord.