London (CNSNews.com) - As more information emerges about three Irish militants arrested in Colombia, the leading unionist party in Northern Ireland has called on Washington to take "stern steps" in the face of alleged terrorism and narcotics collaboration between the IRA and anti-U.S. Marxist terrorists in Latin America.
The development was not just a setback for the peace process, unionists said - it called into doubt the republicans' commitment to a non-violent resolution of the 30-year communal conflict.
President Bush should take steps to show that "democracy will not be held to ransom by Marxists whether they are Irish or Columbian," said the Ulster Unionist Party's Sir Reg Empey.
The UUP, embroiled in a bitter dispute with the IRA's political wing, Sinn Fein, over terrorist disarmament, has seized on the arrests as evidence that the republicans have not abandoned violence.
Although it has observed a ceasefire since 1997, the IRA this week withdrew an offer to disarm.
Three IRA men arrested in Colombia at the weekend are suspected to have been training Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebels in bomb-making techniques. Police found traces of explosives and drugs on their clothing.
Their arrest has embarrassed Sinn Fein, which under the Good Friday agreement shares power with unionists and others in a self-rule government in Belfast.
Security sources say that one of the men - a Spanish-speaker who has been living in Cuba for several years - arranged an official trip to Havana next month for Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams.
Another was filmed sharing a platform with Adams at a Sinn Fein party conference a decade ago, and the third was a Sinn Fein election official in 1996.
During the Clinton era, Sinn Fein leaders received a warm reception in Washington as the president pushed the parties toward an agreement often presented as a highlight of his foreign policy initiatives.
Clinton controversially granted a visa to Adams to visit the U.S. seven years ago, at a time the IRA had yet to agree to a ceasefire. He maintained that only by bringing the republicans in from the cold could a peace deal be achieved.
The UUP's Empey said that if the allegations against the three men arrested in Latin America were upheld, Bush and senior Irish-American figures should review their approach to Sinn Fein.
"The issue of visas to Sinn Fein members was based on their commitment to exclusively peaceful means. This is now in question, and President Bush may have to review his policy in this area," he said.
Empey argued that the alleged IRA activities in Colombia showed that while Irish terrorists had been saying they were committed to peace, they have been "engaged in exporting terrorism throughout the Western world."
The IRA links to FARC could only mean one thing, he said - "they are still wedded to their murderous ways in pursuit of their Marxist ideology."
Empey stressed FARC's actions against American citizens and firms, including terrorism and extortion.
"That's the misery Irish terrorists want to see inflicted on the free world, and that's what President Bush now needs to confront ... these people peddle drugs and inflict misery and death through their ruthless activities."
Another unionist politician in Northern Ireland, Peter Robinson, said he had learned from British intelligence sources information that made it clear the IRA-FARC cooperation was a two-way process.
"The relationship is that of an international terrorist exchange program to exchange knowledge, technology and training between the two organizations on armaments and explosives," Robinson said.
It appeared the Irish militants were learning from FARC about the use of a new type of explosive more powerful than Semtex, the IRA's standard bomb-making ingredient.
This information was in the possession of the British government, he said, and yet it persisted in making concessions to the republicans when it was clear they were not acting in good faith.
FARC was designated as foreign terrorist groups by the State Department in 1997. The department's most recent global terrorism report says the group gets "some medical care and political consultation" from Cuba.
One of the three men being held in Bogota, Niall Connolly, is allegedly the IRA's link man in Cuba, and is understood to have been involved in organizing an eight-day trip by Adams and a Sinn Fein delegation to the communist nation next month, according to UK security sources quoted Thursday.
Sinn Fein, which has long attempted to keep a distance between itself and the IRA, has denied that any of the three men are currently party members.
A spokesman denied that Connolly had been involved in arranging the visit to Cuba.
Sinn Fein has no representative in Cuba or in South America, the spokesman said, adding that only its international department, based in Ireland, had been involved in preparation for the visit to Cuba.
For years many Irish republicans have seen the Cuban government as a natural ally.
Twenty years ago, President Fidel Castro publicly supported the IRA during a dramatic hunger strike which culminated in the deaths of 10 IRA prisoners. Sinn Fein's planned visit comes around the 20th anniversary of that episode.
The Irish republican mouthpiece, An Phoblacht, has long been supportive of Castro and critical of the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba.
In a typical two-part piece last spring, the weekly newspaper gave considerable space to a meeting in Dublin of "Cuban solidarity groups" from across northern Europe.
IRA Arrests In Colombia Casts Pall Over N. Ireland Peace Process (Aug. 16, 2001)