The IRA: Bungle in the Jungle

August 24, 2001

 The IRA: Bungle in the Jungle

By Gwynne Dyer

THE IRISH Republican Army is one of the world’s oldest and most serious revolutionary organisations, but it is also full of people who love the bogus romance of their calling. Consider Niall Connolly, who called himself ‘David Bracken’ on the forged passport he went to Colombia with. ‘David Bracken’ was the assassin in Frederick Forsyth’s novel ‘Day of the Jackal’.

Niall Connolly, according to the Cuban Foreign Ministry, has been the liaison officer in Havana of Sinn Fein, the IRA’s political wing, since 1996. Indeed, it was Connolly who organised next month’s visit to Cuba by Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams to meet Fidel Castro. But Connolly’s business in Colombia was not diplomacy. He travelled there with two other IRA men at the invitation of FARC (the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), the Marxist guerrilla army that now controls almost a third of that country. Connolly’s travelling companions were James Monaghan and Martin McCauley, who have served Sinn Fein in open political posts but are also IRA specialists in explosives, mortars and rockets. Monaghan, indeed, is reckoned by British and Irish intelligence to be the IRA’s ‘chief engineer’, in charge of devising and producing its sophisticated arsenal of home-made weapons.

They travelled by circuitous routes from Dublin, they all used false names, and with a pathetic cover story about ‘sight-seeing’ they immediately flew south to the town of San Vicente, capital of the territory that the Colombian government has ceded to the guerrillas to facilitate the stalled peace talks between the two sides. They stayed five weeks in guerrilla-held territory, and were arrested when they re-emerged from the jungle and tried to fly out through Bogota.

An everyday story of simple guerrilla folk, you might think ­ but it has big international implications, for it may finally turn the United States authorities against the IRA.

FARC is Washington’s biggest worry in Latin America, both because it ‘taxes’ and partly controls the cocaine production in Colombia and adjacent countries, and because one day it might seize control of all Colombia, the Spanish-speaking world’s third-biggest country. The US government is funding a programme of military and civil aid called ‘Plan Colombia’ to stop it, and it does not take kindly to the IRA hanging out with FARC and giving it handy tips on bomb-making.

The US public has long seen the IRA in a friendlier light than other outfits with Marxist antecedents that blow people up, mainly because other Americans tend to see Ireland through the same rose-tinted glasses that the millions of Catholic Irish-Americans wear when they view the politics of their ancestral island. Private financial donations from the United States, tacitly allowed by the US government, have been crucial to the IRA’s three-decade campaign to drive the British out of Northern Ireland and force the Protestant majority there into a union with the Irish Republic. Losing that cash flow, and maybe even the quasi-diplomatic status that lets it talk to the US government, would be a grave loss for the organisation, but the US State Department is so cross about the Colombian caper that it is all at risk.

This all comes just as things were going rather well for the IRA. It had got nowhere with thirty years of bombs and shootings ­ British public opinion never broke and demanded that the troops be pulled out of Northern Ireland ­ but in the past couple of years its self-declared cease-fire has been yielding great dividends. The British government leaped at the chance to bring Sinn Fein into a ‘power-sharing’ government in Northern Ireland, and persuaded most of the Unionist (Protestant) political parties to join too.

However, Sinn Fein and the IRA have made adroit use of the ‘decommissioning’ issue (making the IRA’s large arsenal of guns and explosives unusable) to extract more and more concessions from London while making no definite commitment to disarm in return. By last month moderate Protestant politicians had become so frustrated and so isolated within their own community that they withdrew from the power-sharing government, bringing it down. This was excellent for the IRA, as it made the Protestants look like petulant spoilers and drove the British government to offer even further concessions in the hope of getting some solid promise of decommissioning from the IRA. But now this: IRA operatives training cocaine-smuggling Marxist Latin American revolutionaries in the techniques of urban guerrilla warfare (or terrorism’, as the victims tend to call it).

Why did they do it? Because they needed the money. The IRA has to finance its operations from illegal or at least invisible cash flows, and probably indirectly helps to finance Sinn Fein’s expensive above-ground political organisation as well. FARC, a rural-based organisation, wants a bigger presence in the cities, so it needs instruction in urban guerrilla techniques from people who are experts at that game ­ and all that cocaine money means it can pay handsomely. It was a match made in heaven ­ until it went terribly wrong.

But paradoxically, this deeply embarrassing incident for the IRA may save the peace process in Northern Ireland rather than dooming it. The IRA cannot win the war in Northern Ireland and does not really want to resume it, so it has long been looking for a face-saving way to end it. The power-sharing arrangements were that way, but the IRA’s recent tactical and PR victories over the Unionists were placing it at risk. The Colombian blunder will bring the IRA down a peg or two, and that may help to get the peace process back on the road.