By Jack Holland
WASHINGTON, D.C. — In what turned out to be a clash of conflicting assertions, the House International Relations Committee heard one of its members, Rep. Chris Smith, deny there was any evidence of alleged links between the IRA and a Colombian terrorist group shortly before a high-ranking Colombian general appeared before the committee to detail how, in his opinion, the IRA was training the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.
Smith, a New Jersey Democrat, said “there has been no evidence whatsoever” that the IRA has any connection with FARC. He based his assertion, he said, on inquiries he made with a “wide range of people in the know.”
Shortly afterward, Gen. Fernando Tapias, chairman of the Colombian Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the committee, through a translator: “I can answer that there are at least seven Irishmen who have been identified in Colombia who are linked to the IRA. They are training members of the FARC. They are providing know-how and technical assistance in the production of nonconventional arms. They are providing training and technical assistance as regards the production and the use of other arms and weapons to wage guerilla warfare in combat and in intelligence. We have their names; we have their registry numbers and we know the activities in which they have been engaged.”
Smith’s comments denying such evidence exists and similar assessments made by some other congressmen during the one-day hearing last Wednesday have prompted the Colombian prosecutor general, Luis Camilo Osorio, to respond. In an interview on Bogota TV on April 25, he said: “I am really surprised that they are now saying that there is no evidence [of links between the IRA and FARC]. Authorities from the United States and other places have come here, and we have clearly explained matters to them. . . . There are testimonies, laboratory evidence and scientific proof that show that they came here to manipulate explosives materials.”
The doubts may have come about due to the fact that shortly after Tapias began giving evidence, most of the congressmen left.
Sign up to The Irish Echo Newsletter
During the hearing, which lasted from 10:15 a.m. to just after 1:30 p.m., an average of about 12 of the 47-member committee were in attendance, until, that is, the general arrived at 12:10 p.m. Within 20 minutes, the committee’s benches had thinned, even though Tapias was testifying in some detail about the allegations.
Before Tapias spoke, two witnesses from the Drug Enforcement Agency and the State Department had given broad-ranging accounts of the situation in Colombia, where the U.S.-backed government is fighting insurgents, the most powerful of which, FARC, has drastically escalated its campaign of violence recently with car bomb attacks, mortar attacks, and disruptions of the country’s oil and power supplies.
The IRA was cited as providing crucial training and expertise to FARC following the arrest last August of three Irishmen near Bogota. The three, James Monaghan, Niall Connolly and Martin McCauley, were traveling on false passports and have republican connections. But they claim they were in the country to study the now-defunct peace process there.
The case has provoked considerable controversy, with the IRA denying that the “army council” sent the three to Colombia, and Sinn Fein’s president, Gerry Adams, claiming that he had no knowledge that they were “traveling” in Colombia. Last week, Adams declined an invitation to attend the hearing as a witness.
Several congressmen went out of their way to excuse Adams refusal to attend. One, Donald Payne, a New Jersey Democrat, asked: “What is there for Gerry Adams to say?”
Several congressmen, including Peter King, a New York Republican, and Joseph Crowley, a New York Democrat, repeatedly asked the witnesses if there was any evidence to show that the Army Council (the IRA’s seven-member ruling body) had authorized any operations in Colombia.
“I have no formal knowledge linking these individuals to the high command of the IRA,” Tapias replied. “But I must add in saying so that there is a wealth of information to which I am not privy because that information has not been made available to the military authority I represent. That information is in the hands of the attorney general’s office in the public prosecutions office in Colombia, and there are judicial proceedings ongoing.”
When Crowley repeated his question about army council “authorization” of the Colombian visits, Tapias added: “I do not know, because I am not familiar with the actual workings of the IRA structure, whether it would be conceivable for two significant leaders within the structure to absent themselves for a prolonged period of time without the knowledge of the higher ups of the chain of command of the IRA. I do not know that.”
Just before the general spoke, Rep. Cass Ballenger, a Republican from North Carolina, who took a more adversarial stance in relation to Sinn Fein and IRA claims of innocence of the allegations, said that “you don’t expect an organization that is very well run and, shall we say, well disciplined to have five to 15 independent contractors in and out of Colombia.”
General Tapias spoke and answered questions for about one hour. He said that as many as 15 members of the IRA may have been in and out of Colombia since the late 1990s. He also said that one IRA operative visited the country as early as 1991 and that links were stepped up from 1997 onwards. He said that seven of those were identified, five arrested, of whom two were freed and three charged. At least two of those arrested were said to be also members of Sinn Fein, and one of them, Martin McCauley, was alleged to have been the party’s director of elections for the Upper Bann in 1996.