Three Irishmen convicted of training rebels in Colombia will be rearrested if they set foot in the UK, the British government warned tonight.
As unionists challenged the Irish Government to detain the men amid claims their return to the Republic was part of a deal to secure IRA decommissioning, the Northern Ireland Office warned there would be no hiding place for them north of the Irish border.
A spokesman said: “That is a matter for the Irish authorities. If they enter the UK an extradition request will be dealt with without delay.”
The three men returned to Ireland in the last few days, eight months after they were convicted in their absence of training Marxist rebels in the South American country.
Niall Connolly, James Monaghan and Martin McCauley had been missing since last December after an appeal court reversed their original acquittal and sentenced them to 17 years in prison.
The Irish Government, Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams and one of the men denied there was any deal to allow them home as the Colombian authorities signalled they would seek their extradition.
Democratic Unionist deputy leader Peter Robinson called on Taoiseach Bertie Ahern to immediately hand the men over to the Colombian authorities.
“These three men were intricately involved in the global terrorist network,” the East Belfast MP said.
“Bertie Ahern would do well to remember the words of President Bush when he said: ’those who harbour terrorists are terrorists.”’
The three Irishmen were arrested at Bogota’s El Dorado Airport in August 2001 as they prepared to board a flight out of the country and accused of teaching left-wing rebels in the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) urban terrorism techniques.
However they vigorously denied the claim, insisting they were visiting Colombia to monitor the country’s peace process.
Mr Monaghan tonight claimed no deal was done with either the British or Irish governments for their return and insisted they were not on the run.
“There hasn’t been any deal, we returned as soon as we could,” he said.
“I’m back in Ireland only a few days and as you can imagine, a lot of people in a lot of countries had to help us and I can’t endanger those people.
“I’m not on the run, I’m back and I would hope that I would be left in peace and that the Irish Government, who were quite good during the time we were away and the Taoiseach asked that we be sent back while we were waiting on the appeal and so on so I’d hope they would continue in that vein, but if it’s the case that the gardaí or someone wants to talk to us or talk to me, that’s alright.”
Mr Monaghan told RTE that the three had not gone to Colombia to train FARC rebels and insisted they only visited the country to learn about the peace process.
An Irish government spokesman said: “This issue was not part of the government’s discussions with Sinn Féin and we had no prior knowledge of their return to Ireland.”
Mr Robinson said the DUP was looking for the men’s immediate arrest and for the Republic to hand them over to the Colombian authorities.
“Mr Ahern must facilitate by whatever means necessary their swift extradition, even if that means new legislation,” he said.
“If he does not, unionists in Northern Ireland will believe him to be complicit. These men are on-the-run terrorists, convicted of terrorism in a Colombian court.
“They are in the Republic of Ireland and given that there is supposed to be a global battle against terrorism, Bertie Ahern knows what he has to do.”
Former Stormont Culture Minister Michael McGimpsey said the Irish Government had a duty to send the three men back to Colombia.
However, the Ulster Unionist negotiator said he thought this was unlikely to happen.
“It is surely no coincidence that the Colombia Three have arrived home after the events of the last fortnight emanating from the IRA statement,” the south Belfast MLA said.
“The Irish government are unlikely to send them back as this move is likely to be part of the latest concession choreography to republicans.
“The Colombia Three are probably the first ’on the run’ to be given a pardon. Once again, despicable political expediency is replacing common sense and due process.”
The Irish Department of Justice said it was aware of reports the three men were back in Ireland.
A spokesman said no extradition treaty existed between Ireland and Colombia, but if they received a request for extradition it would be considered.
Fine Gael opposition party leader Enda Kenny demanded an immediate statement from the Mr Ahern and Justice Minister Michael McDowell on the circumstances surrounding the men’s return.
Mr Kenny also called on the government to clarify whether their return was part of the negotiations between it and Sinn Fein in the run up to the recent IRA statement on its future intentions.
Justice Minister Michael McDowell is currently out of the country.
Sinn Féin MLA Caitriona Ruane, who spearheaded the campaign to have the Colombia Three returned to Ireland, today said it was a relief to have them home but that she did not know how they had made their way back into the country.
Speaking outside Sinn Féin’s headquarters in Dublin Ms Ruane said: “It’s been a long four years for the families of these men and for them.
“They’ve suffered terribly and its good to have them home.”
The South Down MLA, who attended the men’s trial and visited them in prison said there was no deal done to get them back to Ireland.
Asked if she thought the timing of their return could have been better or if it had damaged the peace process, Ms Ruane said: “I think what we need to do in the peace process is move forward.
“We need all party talks and we need to get the negotiations up and running.
“The DUP, the UUP or anybody cannot block change in relation to the peace process.
“Yesterday the DUP was saying it was other things that were blocking the peace process, and tomorrow its going to be something else.”
Ms Ruane said there was an incredible context in which the relationship between Ireland and Britain had changed forever and that everyone just needed to move forward.
Asked if she was concerned the Irish Government might allow the extradition of the men back to Colombia Ms Ruane said she had met with Irish Government officials on a number of occasions over the past few years.
“The Irish Government during the trial and after the men were found innocent made representation to the Colombian government saying that they felt the safest place for the men was in Ireland.
“Irish people the length and breadth of this country know that these men cannot nor should not be sent to Colombia and I hope the Government understand that,” she said.
She said Mr Monaghan had said he was available to talk to gardaí and that the men were not in hiding.
She said she had no involvement in bringing the men back into the country over the past couple of days but that she had spoken to them and they were currently with their families.
“When I began in the campaign my aim was to get these three men back to Ireland – that part of it is done I’m pleased to say and I hope that’s the end of it,” she said.