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It is more shameful to distrust one’s friends than to be deceived by them.
- François duc de la Rochefoucauld



Sinn Fein and the Embarrassing Three


Anthony McIntyre


Sinn Fein have not had an easy week. Hounded from many different directions the party exudes the appearance that it is tottering and struggling to maintain its balance. Given the pounding it has sustained, that it is not punch drunk by now is testament to its considerable ring craft. From the moment Henry Hyde, chair of the International Relations Committee sent his letter to Sinn Fein asking Gerry Adams to 'appear and help us determine what the Sinn Fein leadership knew about the IRA activities with the FARC narco-terrorists in Colombia and when did Sinn Fein learn of them?', it was clear that the knotted tie of the IRA was being moved uncomfortably close to the party windpipe. Sinn Fein denied receiving any letter. But things in relation to Colombia can move very slowly within the party - it was months, we are led to believe, before its leadership learned that Niall Connolly was in fact a member. And according to Gerry Adams on Hearts and Minds the leadership went to Cuba rather than Belfast to learn this. Presumably Hyde's letter went via Cuba also.

A Sinn Fein spokesperson made it clear that the party 'do not have a case to answer'. Nevertheless, its Washington office did not rest on this and as part of what David McKittrick called 'a major damage limitation exercise' went to formidable lengths to pull out all the stops in order to create plenty of wriggle room designed to allow the leadership to dodge the flak certain to come its way. And where it landed the objective of Congressman Peter King and colleagues was to ensure it missed the main target, the Sinn Fein president, Gerry Adams. With a senior Bush official saying of seven alleged IRA members supposedly in Colombia, 'if these people are who we think they are then it beggars belief that the Sinn Fein leadership did not sanction what was going on', the stakes were higher than they had been for some time.

If media coverage this side of the Atlantic is accurate Sinn Fein emerged somewhat unscathed. However, if this is so, and given the party's assurance that there was no case against it, it seems strange that Mr Adams did not avail of the opportunity to go to the Congressional hearing. Comfort himself as he might that the hearing's outcome 'vindicates the position that we took in relation to all of this', his 'snub' as many Americans view it, could have been avoided and he would have secured a moral victory. That the Americans would view it as a snub can be gleaned from The Philadelphia Inquirer:

Perhaps Mr. Adams doesn't appreciate what is at stake. Snubbing the House International Relations Committee ... may play well with Irish republicans back home in Northern Ireland. But the Americans who support Sinn Fein - literally, by donating the bulk of its political contributions - may have serious qualms about giving money to an IRA-aligned Sinn Fein now that three men with IRA connections are accused of aiding Colombian rebels who thrive off America's drug addictions.

Gerry Adams - who says he accepts the claim of the three imprisoned Irish republicans that they were only studying the Colombian peace process - in maintaining that the hearing would have jeopardised their trial is raising a few eyebrows. It would only have done so if Sinn Fein had a case to answer, went out and were brought to book. There is much to be said for the Guardian leader (a paper that by no means gives the republican party a rough ride) when it observed that if the Sinn Fein president was able to show that the three republicans in a Colombian jail 'were not involved in a network with the Colombian FARC rebels, then he would surely have done so. It would have helped, not prejudiced, the three defendants'. There was little possibility that the Colombian authorities would have flagrantly dissented from a verdict reached in open session in the American Congress. There was a much better chance of obtaining a de facto acquittal in Washington than in Bogota. A Colombian de jure acquittal would surely have followed.

Despite Cass Ballenger, a Republican from North Carolina, having attempted to prejudice the outcome by stating before the Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere on April 11 that 'the IRA has been in Colombia providing the FARC narco-terrorists with urban terrorist expertise and training', the Irish Echo informed its readers that the 47-member House International Relations Committee represented a broad cross-section of congressional political opinion. Some of the constituencies represented had 'a strong Irish-American makeup. A substantial core of these have been identified over the years with Irish issues'. As well as Ben Gilman, there were:

Peter King, a New York Republican; Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat; Joe Crowley, a New York Democrat; Christopher Smith, a New Jersey Republican; Eliot Engel, a New York Democrat, and Gary Ackerman, also a New York Democrat. All have been sympathetic to Sinn Fein and the Irish nationalist agenda in general ... and can be expected to lend a sympathetic ear to any plausible explanation from Sinn Fein as to what the three republicans were doing in Bogota, should the party choose to send a representative to the hearing.

And as Mark Davenport of the BBC reported, 'in the past, the International Relations Committee has debated allegations of human rights abuses in Northern Ireland and called for reforms in policing'.

On the other hand the Sinn Fein president was armed with professional legal advice that his presence at the hearing could have jeopardised the trial. And that must be taken in conjunction with other motives which may have been influencing the investigation. Adams claimed that 'investigating counsel told me and Martin McGuinness separately that he had been pressed by British representatives'. True or not, unlike Britain's relationship to the North where it is hard to conceive of any strategic interest that would hold it here, the United States sees Colombia as being central to America's hemispherical interests. Assistance for FARC from whatever quarter is, in the words of the BBC, 'seen as impinging on US national interests'. According to the Observer, President Bush wants to send an extra $98m to train the Colombian army to defend a controversial oil pipeline. Not surprisingly, several members of the International Relations Committee see a benefit in establishing a link between FARC and the IRA so that Plan Colombia can be extended to fight FARC on the grounds that such links indicate that the Marxist guerrillas are part of an 'international terror network'. Davenport, therefore, concedes that 'Gerry Adams has a point when he says that both he and the three republicans still in custody in Colombia are pawns in a bigger game'. And the Irish Independent allowed room for the opinion to be expressed that Sinn Fein just 'happened to be the meat in the sandwich'.

In all of this Adams found a staunch ally in Peter King, who argued that nothing new would emerge from a pointless hearing. In addition Father Sean McManus who had called for many inquiries over the years found himself in the rare position of opposing this one on the grounds that it 'will be seen as an open invitation by right-wing extremists in Colombia to assassinate the three Irishmen.' And Congressman Bill Delahunt who was described by the Irish Independent as 'one of the committee members who appeared most determined to nail Sinn Fein' dismissed the findings of the committee's investigation as 'short on facts and replete with surmise and opinions'. He further opined that it was sitting 'not to determine facts, but to rubber stamp' conclusions already drawn.

Nevertheless, all of this has not tipped the scales in favour of a generally benign interpretation of Sinn Fein's refusal to attend the hearings. The Guardian is close to the mark when it said of Adams, 'many will assume the worst from his failure ... the reality is that he faced a big challenge to his political credibility and bottled it'. This hardly reflects on Adams' personal courage. Over the years he has batted at the crease for republicans in the most difficult of circumstances. This time, he made a political choice, arguably quite independent of any concerns for the three men in Colombia. Had Mr Adams chosen to go out, the prospects for those three may have improved dramatically. But the overall game plan of the Congressional hearing was to allow matters to unfold in a manner that would allow the Sinn Fein leadership to be exonerated from having prior knowledge of the activities, whatever they were, of the three arrested men. Such a 'get out of jail card', however, was to be denied the imprisoned republicans. The price of exoneration for the Sinn Fein leadership was leaving the men victim to a growing belief in the US that they were linked to the IRA, and it in turn to FARC related activity. The lifeline to Adams was the anchor pulling the detained republicans ever deeper into the mire. Seemingly the campaign 'to let them rot' has begun in earnest.

It did not have to be like this. Rather than Gerry Adams briefing the media that it was quite legitimate for the human rights defiling Colombian government to lobby Washington over the coming days for extra US aid to combat FARC he could have informed the International Relations Committee that the behaviour of its own government in relation to support for the war criminal Ariel Sharon, its refusal to allow Henry Kissinger to stand trial for war crimes, and its interference in the internal affairs of Venezuela are all matters of infinitely more gravity than the presence of three Irish republicans in the Colombian jungles. He could have used the Congressional hearings as a platform to argue that were US Government backed Colombian state repression and human rights abuses not as pronounced as they are that the three republicans would never have been in the country to begin with. But he chose not to do this. And as a trade off the International Relations Committee chose not to do him.

Does anyone believe that had Hugo Chavez been the subject of the inquiry he would have walked away unscathed? The American state has never gone over to the side of revolution and has no tradition of helping revolutionary leaderships. It only helps those who are of use to them. These hearings have ensured that its record of consistency on this matter remains unblemished.



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