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Tuesday, 14 August, 2001, 19:05 GMT 20:05 UK
The IRA's foreign connections
Irish republican interests span the globe
As three men with suspected links to the Irish Republican Army are arrested in Colombia, BBC News Online's Patrick Jackson looks at the scope of Irish republicans' international connections:

Details of what they were doing in Colombia are sketchy, but the appearance of known Irish republicans far beyond the British Isles is nothing new.

Since the original IRA emerged more than 80 years ago, it and other Irish republican groups have actively sought, and often found, support abroad.

Furthermore, fired by revolutionary politics, IRA members have also taken part in conflicts far removed from their immediate goal of Irish independence.

Supply lines

In the early 20th century, republican attempts to enlist Soviet support shortly after the Russian Revolution came to little, as did later approaches to Nazi Germany.

The Eksund
An arms cargo from Libya was seized by Britain in 1987

But by far the strongest source of support for republicans has long been the Irish-American community, especially hardliners who played a key role in funding the growth of the Provisional IRA in the 1970s.

It was during this period that the Provisional IRA imported its first arms and ammunition from Libya.

That link was resumed in 1986 when Colonel Muammar Gaddafi decided to arm the organisation following the UK's support for the US bombing of Tripoli. Other arms reached Northern Ireland during this period from eastern European sources.

While the Provisional IRA remains on ceasefire, dissidents have been active attempting to establish new supply routes in Europe.

Only this year, dissident republicans were arrested in Slovakia, said to be a favoured location for the Russian mafia's arms deals, and Bosnia has been reported as a source of weapons.

Ideology

The reports from Colombia suggest something different from a simple arms-for-cash operation - according to Bogota, the detainees were actually training leftist rebels in urban guerrilla warfare.

The IRA has long had links to other revolutionary organisations, whether largely symbolic as with the Palestinian Liberation Organisation and the African National Congress, or, in the opinion of European intelligence agencies, hard cooperation such as with the Spanish Basque separatist group Eta.

Similarities have been detected, for instance, in explosive devices used by the IRA and Eta.


The Irish contingent is a demonstration of revolutionary Ireland's solidarity with gallant Spanish workers and peasants in their fight for freedom against fascism

IRA member Frank Ryan in 1936

In fact, Spain was the scene of the original IRA's one major involvement abroad - when its members went off to fight in the 1930s on the republican side in the Spanish Civil War.

Many of those who went to Spain were veterans of the 1918-1921 war against Britain who had split with their old comrades-in-arms over the partition of Ireland.

The Colombian question

Charles Shoebridge, a former officer with Britain's Metropolitan police who now works as a crime consultant, told BBC News Online that the ceasefire observed by the IRA's main strand, the Provisional IRA, has important implications outside the British Isles:

"There are a lot of out-of-work IRA members with a very saleable commodity - expertise on terrorism."

It is not clear that the men arrested in Colombia, at least two of whom are convicted IRA bomb-makers, represent the Provisionals or, for that matter, the Real IRA.

If they do, it is possible that they were seeking arms or funds in return for their weapons expertise but, Mr Shoebridge says, "the Provisional IRA for one possesses enough arms of their own".

There may, of course, be ideological reasons at play, as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) have revolutionary goals similar to those of the IRA.

Yet another possible connection is the drugs trade.


There are a lot of out-of-work IRA members with a very saleable commodity - expertise on terrorism

Charles Shoebridge, crime consultant
"Individuals within the IRA have in the past been deeply involved in the supply of hard drugs in the north and south of Ireland," Mr Shoebridge said.

"Colombia - where the FARC heavily involved in cocaine - would be a natural partner."

But given the IRA's own claim to have long pursued suspected drugs-traffickers within Ireland, the question for now remains open.

See also:

14 Aug 01 | Americas
IRA suspects seized in Colombia
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