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Thursday, 13 June, 2002, 16:49 GMT 17:49 UK
Q & A: The Colombia connection
For almost a year, the arrest of three Irish men in Colombia has become one of the most important issues of the Northern Ireland peace process. BBC News Online explains the background to the case.

What started all this off?

On 11 August 2001, authorities in the Colombian capital Bogota said they had arrested three Irish men who had been in an area of the country controlled by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), marxist rebels waging an ongoing guerrilla war.

The three men were named as James Monaghan, Niall Connolly and Martin McCauley.

The authorities accused them of being members of the IRA and of training FARC fighters, something they denied.

The three men had been travelling on false passports. At first they said they were eco-tourists but later added they were there to study the Colombia peace process. The trial is due to start soon, but has been delayed because of security fears.

What effect did this have in Northern Ireland?

While the IRA is long known to have nurtured international links with paramilitary organisations including ETA in Spain and Palestinian groups, the news came as a total surprise. While security forces tried to assess what was going on, Sinn Fein denied that the three men were working for the party.

The first question that people wanted answering was, if the men were members of the IRA, what were they doing in Colombia? And if they were there as members of the IRA, what implications did this have for the peace process?

How did unionists react?

With suspicion. They demanded answers from Sinn Fein at a time when the peace process was deadlocked.

Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble had resigned as first minister of the power-sharing assembly because the IRA had yet to start decommissioning weapons.

He said the suspected Colombia connection did nothing to encourage the unionist community to trust republicans.

Their mood worsened when it emerged that the three men did indeed have republican links.

James Monaghan had escaped explosives charges in the 1970s but had resurfaced in the 1980s as a member of the Sinn Fein executive.

Niall Connolly was described as Sinn Fein's Spanish-speaking Cuba representative. Martin McCauley had been a party worker.

What did the republicans say?

The IRA tried to end the matter with a statement on 19 September, accusing others of "ill-founded and mischievous speculation". It insisted that it had neither sent anyone to Colombia nor interfered in its internal affairs.

However, as the parties found a way out of the deadlock in October, Sinn Fein changed its position.

On the day before the IRA decommissioned weapons for the first time, Gerry Adams admitted that Niall Connolly worked for the party in Cuba, but he and other party leaders had not been aware of this fact.

What happened next?

The Colombia connection has not been an issue in Northern Ireland alone.

An estimated 90% of cocaine and 65% of heroin sold in America comes from Colombia. Washington blames "narco-terrorist" organisations, led by FARC for this supply.

Senior figures in Washington said they were determined to investigate the IRA's alleged involvement with Colombia's rebels, a mood that hardened in the wake of September 11's war on terror.

This could have major implications for Sinn Fein which relies on Irish-American supporters for a lot of its funds.

The issue came to a head in March when a US Congressional committee asked Gerry Adams to testify.

He declined, saying that he did not want to prejudice the forthcoming trial of the three men.

For its part, the IRA issued another statement, underlining that it had "not interfered in the internal affairs of Colombia and will not do so".

How did the committee react?

The committee subsequently said that it believed that the IRA was one of a number of groups who had visited Colombian rebels.

"It is likely that in the former FARC safe haven these terrorist groups had been sharing techniques, honing their terrorism skills, using illicit drug proceeds in payment "

Has the peace process has remained on track?

While the institutions have been working, the mood has been souring. Despite the best efforts of republicans to make Colombia go away, it hasn't.

At the core of this is an on-going distrust between unionists and republicans.

Unionists say that events have chipped away at their ability to trust republicans.

In recent months, unionists have unsuccessfully tried to force Northern Ireland Secretary John Reid to reassess the IRA ceasefire in the wake of Colombia and other issues.

For his party, Mr Reid has reiterated what others expect of the IRA.

He said that he believed the republican movement's leaders were committed to peace.

"But if there is to be confidence, we need to see an end to paramilitary attacks, targeting and any other such preparations," he said.

"In a sense, we all truly need to have the sense that the war is over."


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