Republicans relieved as Washington hearing fails to produce new accusations

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The Independent Online

The IRA and Sinn Fein were probably much relieved by the outcome of yesterday's hearings in Washington, given that they produced no sharp new accusations against them from US sources.

An IRA statement issued in Belfast, reiterating that its army council had sent no one to Colombia for sinister purposes, served as confirmation, however, that the republican movement is involved in a major damage limitation exercise.

Republican links with Colombia are capable of causing great harm to both Sinn Fein and the IRA, since the organisations are keen to deny accusations of involvement with both international terrorism and the drugs trade.

While British security organisations accept that the IRA is not involved with drugs, republicans have yet to come up with a convincing innocent explanation for the link with the Colombian terrorist group Farc. Republicans are particularly anxious, especially in the wake of 11 September, to provide assurance to the Bush administration, to Irish-Americans and the wider public that contacts with Farc do not mean the IRA is part of any international terror network.

The Bush administration is distinctly unamused by any Farc-IRA links, and has pressed republicans to sever any such ties.

The decision not to send the Sinn Fein president, Gerry Adams, was at least in part taken so as not to provide television pictures of him being grilled by hostile questioners.

As it was, the hearings were both brief and marked by disagreements among committee members on the credibility of the report on the matter.

The Colombian authorities have already made their accusations against the IRA, but the fact that the committee itself appeared divided will be a source of celebration in Irish republican circles.

In its statement the IRA said its army council had sent "no one to Colombia to train or to engage in any military co-operation with any group". It added that the arrest of three republicans in the South American country had been "used again in an intense way by opponents of the peace process in Ireland and Britain".

It continued: "This was an attempt to undermine and subvert the democratic peace process. The IRA has not interfered in the internal affairs of Colombia and will not do so."

Speaking before the hearing, Mr Adams said he would have liked to have attended the hearing but felt it would prejudice the forthcoming trial of the three men.

His suggestion that London had encouraged the hearings was denied by a government spokesman as "absurd and grasping at straws."

Sinn Fein was criticised for "showing contempt for the principles of democracy" for refusing an invitation to attend a Dail committee hearing on alleged links between the party and international terrorism, by the committee chairman Des O'Malley, a long-time critic.