The trial of the three might have descended into farce during its recent opening, and rather rapid adjournment, but it’s clear that the case has nevertheless been a rude awakening for those who had become used to the political somnolence in Washington induced — for more good reasons than bad of course — by the Good Friday agreement.
The famous Gerry Adams line about the IRA not having gone away had not traveled too far beyond Belfast, but toward the end of 2001 it suddenly stepped across the Atlantic Ocean in a seeming moment.
There were fears at the time that the Bush administration, fired up and on edge as a result of the attack on America and its gathering war on terrorism, might move to close the door on Irish republicans who had become used to stepping across the pond like so many tourists.
The Bush people, both in the State Department and White House, did not lose their cool, although a line was clearly drawn in the sand to the effect that any more Colombia-style capers would close America’s door with a bang.
That view still dominates at the highest levels and was confirmed by the recent statement by Secretary of State Colin Powell to the Chicago Tribune.
Said Powell: “But after 9/11, as we looked at terrorist activities around the world — and maybe the [factions fighting in Colombia] do not have global reach in the sense that Al Qaeda has global reach — but when you start to see members of the IRA in Colombia sharing experiences, sharing knowledge, doing heaven only knows what, it suggests that these kinds of organizations are committed to destroying democracy in our hemisphere. Should that not be a concern of ours?”
The administration’s anger in the Colombia affair, to paraphrase Adams, hasn’t gone away, you know, and is likely to linger even if Niall Connolly, James Monaghan and Martin McCauley end up merely getting a kick in the transom and a one-way ticket out of Bogota.
The case of the Colombia Three has been a divisive one in Irish America. Those divisions have certainly been exacerbated by timing. The three Irishmen were picked up only days before 9/11 threw U.S. foreign policy into an entirely new and unexpected dynamic.
The case sent sparks flying back in the spring when the House International Relations Committee, chaired by Rep. Henry Hyde, held a hearing on the circumstances surrounding the arrests and the allegations of IRA links with the FARC. Adams declined to turn up and the day-long event was a bit of bust, not unlike the eventual trial in Bogota.
This was in large part due to the critical positions adopted by members of the congressional Ad Hoc Committee for Irish Affairs, most notably Reps. Peter King and Ben Gilman, Hyde’s predecessor as chairman, who did not want the hearing to take place at all because he thought it would be damaging to the peace process.
This was by no means the first time over the years that the Ad Hoc leadership — the group has four co-chairs — had rushed to the aid of a beleaguered Irish Republican position.
The Ad Hoc Committee came into being 25 years ago under the chairmanship of Mario Biaggi of New York. A prime instigator behind its formation was Fr. Sean McManus of the Washington, D.C.-based Irish National Caucus. A prime reason for its coming into being was to swing members of Congress behind Irish-American activist groups and counter the suspicions and often opposing influences of the Irish government through its diplomats in Washington. The Ad Hoc grouping was successful to the point that the embassy, several years later, found the need to encourage formation of a counter group, the Friends of Ireland.
The Ad Hoc group’s quarter century was marked in the fall at an event in Washington held in the hearing room of the House International Relations Committee and sponsored by the Ancient Order of Hibernians. The new president of the AOH, Ned McGinley, is widely viewed as being the most politically minded AOH leader in years and the Ad Hoc bash was a marker in this regard.
The peace process has blurred the lines between the Friends and the Ad Hoc sides of the aisle. Often these days, an Ad Hoc missive to the British government will include the signature of Friends chairman James Walsh. Such was the case with a recent letter sent to former Northern Ireland Secretary John Reid expressing concern that the British government was failing to protect Catholics from loyalist attacks.
The letter was signed by the four co-chairs of the Ad Hoc Committee: King, Gilman, Richard Neal and Joe Crowley. It was also signed by Walsh.
One of those co-chairs, Ben Gilman, is about to retire from Congress. Many see GOP congressman Chris Smith as his replacement.
Smith, who represents the Fourth District in New Jersey, is in prime position to succeed Gilman. He is deeply interested in Ireland, has a track record of holding hearings, and chairs a congressional sub-committee that can provide a stage for future investigations of ill-doings in the North.
Like Walsh, Smith’s name has appeared on Ad Hoc letters alongside the co-chairs. It was attached to one last July sent to British Prime Minister Tony Blair. The letter expressed concern that the British government was going to undermine the power-sharing institutions of the Good Friday agreement.
For long-time observers of Irish-American involvement in the Northern Ireland conundrum, there was a certain irony at the sight of Ad Hoc congressmen admonishing the British government for supposedly threatening an agreement worked out by three governments, British, Irish and U.S. The Ad Hoc guys were once the hotheads as far as London was concerned.
The Ad Hoc leaders might feel inclined to get a little hot under the collar again in 2003. The political ground in the North has not stopped shifting, you know, and if anything is looking more unsteady than at any time since the GFA was inked in 1998.
Making predictions in politics is a risky venture. But Chris Smith to replace the retiring Ben Gilman on the Ad Hoc Committee is a better bet than most.