European Union chiefs were today urged to put the Irish Government to the test over its attitude towards terrorism.
Democratic Unionist MEP Jim Allister issued the challenge following the emergence from hiding last Friday of three Irish republicans who have been on the run since a Colombian court found them guilty of training Marxist rebels.
Mr Allister has tabled a question in the European Parliament – to be answered next month – about the return of James Monaghan, Martin McCauley and Niall Connolly.
EU Governments and EU Commission officials have been asked: "Following the unimpeded return of convicted terrorist fugitives, Niall Connolly, James Monaghan and Martin McCauley, to the Republic of Ireland from Colombia, and given the EU’s declared commitment to support the fight against international terrorism, what steps has the Council of Ministers/Commission taken to ensure that the Irish government does not provide sanctuary for these international terrorists and is the Council/Commission satisfied that Europol did everything possible to thwart their return?"
Since their arrest in Bogota in August 2001, Monaghan, McCauley and Connolly have denied claims that they were training FARC rebels.
James Monaghan repeated in a television interview on Friday their assertion that they were in Colombia to study the country’s peace process.
The trio have been in hiding since the Colombian Court of Appeal overturned in December their acquittal of the charges.
Mr Allister said he had contacted every MEP to ensure they exerted maximum pressure on Taoiseach Bertie Ahern’s Government to ensure it lived up to its international obligations.
“I fully intend to use the forum and facilities of the European Parliament to keep the focus on this issue, believing that it is intolerable for any civilised government to harbour terrorists,” the Democratic Unionist MEP said.
“Ahern and his seemingly robust Justice Minister (Michael McDowell) must now be put to the test.”
The return of the men has caused problems for the Irish Government since no extradition treaty exists between Dublin and Colombia.
Earlier today, Colombian Vice President Francisco Santos reiterated his call to the Irish Government to either extradite or imprison the trio.
“It is very clear, they should come to Colombia and pay the due they have with Colombian justice, which is a sentence to 17 years for training a terrorist organisation called the Farc in bomb-making, in different types of uses of explosives, which we have seen in Colombia that have become very, very dangerous and very, very damaging to Colombian civilians and Colombian military,” Mr Santos said.
“The least we expect from the Irish government is they either pay their sentence in Irish jails or that they be extradited.
“How? We do not know exactly at this precise moment.”
Social Affairs Minister Seamus Brennan also urged the three Irishmen today to surrender themselves to gardaí.
“Nobody in the country, these men or anybody else, is above the law and nobody is below it,” Mr Brennan said.
He acknowledged the reappearance of the men had caused problems for the peace process, which had been boosted by the IRA’s recent decision to abandon its armed campaign.
The minister said the situation had soured relationships with the US.
“It doesn’t do any good for our relationship with the United States, we have major investment programmes here with the United States for example,” he told RTE radio.
“We are not harbouring terrorists, we have a common law system, it is entirely different.
“It’s one thing for the United States to say something like that, it is a political statement.”
There were calls today for a Sinn Féin member of the Northern Ireland Assembly, Caitriona Ruane to be interviewed by police about the whereabouts of the three men.
Ulster Unionist councillor Peter Bowles urged the Police Service of Northern Ireland or gardaí to question Ms Ruane, who campaigned for the trio’s acquittal in Colombia, after reports that she has been in contact with the trio since their return.
The Down UUP councillor said: “The reports at the weekend that Ms Ruane has made contact with the men were extremely disturbing but not surprising given the pivotal role Ms Ruane has played in assisting them throughout the years.
“There is no doubt in my mind that Ms Ruane knows the whereabouts of these individuals and has a legal, political and moral obligation to cooperate with the authorities to facilitate the arrest and extradition of these men.
“If Ms Ruane does not volunteer this information the PSNI and gardaí must interview her immediately.”
The Young Unionist chairman said the Irish Government faced a clear choice over the Colombia Three.
“The ball is firmly in Bertie Ahern’s court,” he said.
“He can either take a stand against terrorism by sending them back to Colombia or once again capitulate to Sinn Féin’s insatiable demands and take the cowards way out.
“While Mr Ahern stalls for time on this issue, he should mindful of President Bush’s words in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks when he said: ’We make no distinction between terrorists and those who knowingly harbour or provide aid to them.’
“The Irish Prime Minister (Taoiseach) should study these words carefully and decide upon reading them whether the yellow belly approach he has adopted so far in relation to the Colombia Three is necessarily the best option.”