By Jack Holland
Allegations of the IRA’s links to Colombian guerrillas continued to mount this week with claims from a reliable source that Brian Keenan, the IRA chief of staff, was among those who visited the large “no-go” area controlled by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia; known as FARC.
Sources both in Colombia and Ireland allege that the visits began as far back as 1997 and continued up until August, when three Irish men with alleged IRA links were arrested in Bogota International Airport. Niall Connolly, Martin McCauley and James Monaghan were said to have been involved in providing mortar technology for FARC, which has been fighting against the U.S.-backed regime since 1966 and has also been tied to the huge traffic in cocaine. McCauley and Monaghan are both thought be high-ranking republicans, and Connolly is said to be Sinn Fein’s representative in Cuba.
Last weekend, the London Sunday Times named a former IRA leader in the Maze Prison, Padraic Wilson, as another important member who spent some time in Colombia. Wilson was convicted in 1991 of bomb-making offenses and was at one time one of the Belfast Brigade’s leaders. During the peace talks, he was let out of prison to report to the IRA and Sinn Fein leadership.
The Belfast-born Keenan is thought to have become chief of staff about two years ago. Previously, he served a long prison sentence for bombing offenses in Britain and is regarded as among the more ideologically motivated in the movement, with many ties to left-wing and militant organizations throughout the world, including in Central America and the Middle East. Keenan was suspected of returning to his activities upon his release from prison and was alleged to have been one of the organizers of the bombing campaign in Britain in the early 1990s.
In recent years, Keenan has been known to slip back into rhetoric reminiscent of the IRA in the 1970s. He has been especially hard line on the issue of weapons decommissioning, saying that decommissioning equals surrender and that there’d be “no surrender.” At one Easter commemoration, he said that the “only thing to be decommissioned in Ireland will be British imperialism.”
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A security source in Belfast has described him as a “wily old fox.”
It is thought that his leftist sympathies may well have influenced the recent editorial in An Phoblacht which responded to the attacks on New York and Washington by denouncing the “militaristic and aggressive policy pursued by U.S. governments” in the Middle East and Central America which have led to “the deaths of many thousands of innocent people.” The editorial caused consternation among many Irish American supporters of Sinn Fein.
Bill Flynn, chairman of the National Committee on American Foreign Policy, which since the beginning of the peace process has provided an important venue for Sinn Fein speakers, among others, said that he finds the Colombian allegations, if true, “frightening.”
“No one can support that in any shape or form,” he said. He warned that it has the potential to “change everything” in relation to Sinn Fein’s standing in the U.S.
Supporters in the U.S. may be even more concerned to learn of further allegations, in last weekend’s London Sunday Times, that Alicia Rodriquez, a member of the Puerto Rican terrorist group the Armed Forces for National Liberation, or FALN, is among those invited to attend the upcoming Sinn Fein conference in Ireland. The paper reports that Rodriquez was released in 1999 after serving a long sentence for conspiracy. The FALN was responsible for a series of bomb attacks in Chicago which left several dead and many injured.
Observers have been puzzled by the party’s seeming insouciance to the implications of such links and allegations for its support base in America. When U.S. envoy Richard Haass expressed his concern about the alleged FARC-IRA connection on a recent visit to Britain and Ireland, Gerry Kelly, Sinn Fein assembly member for North Belfast, dismissed those concerns by saying that “Haass can have his own opinion” on the matter.
Though the IRA and Sinn Fein have denied the allegations, they have done so in qualified terms. An IRA statement refuting the links to FARC was worded carefully, saying, “We wish to make it clear that the Army Council sent no one to Colombia to train or to engage in any military cooperation with any group.” The Army Council is the IRA’s leadership body, which determines overall policy. But the denial leaves open the possibility that the three had gone under orders from the GHQ staff, the body directly beneath the Army Council, which is responsible for running the organization’s operations.
Deftness with words can also be seen in Gerry Adams’s denial that Sinn Fein had a representative in Cuba. It is strictly true, since the man alleged to occupy that position is in jail in Colombia. Adams himself is reportedly still planning a trip to Cuba sometime in the coming months, according to reports.