Explosive Journey



Alejandra Gonzalez was born in Medellín, a city north-west of Bogotá, and is a PhD student at the National University of Ireland, Galway, where she is involved in research and lecturing at the Centre for Innovation & Structural Change (CISC). [7] She comments that in many countries in Latin America the presence of Irish people was extremely valuable. The Irish Republicans' struggle for a united Ireland has been a source of inspiration for the organisations involved in the often suppressed socialist movements in Latin America. With regard to alleged connections between FARC and the IRA, Gonzalez believes that the image of Colombia in Ireland was negatively affected by the affair. She considers the 'Bring Them Back' [sic] campaign to have emphasised Colombia's most serious problems in the eyes of the general public in order to build a strong case for their campaign and to enhance their arguments. Nonetheless, she does not think the reputation of Latin America in general has been damaged by the event.

Caitríona Ruane is Sinn Féin's spokesperson on Equality, Human Rights and Women. She is an elected member of the Northern Ireland Assembly for the South Down constituency. She has experience of working in Latin America since 1983 and has chaired the Bring Them Home campaign since 2001. Ruane confirms that Sinn Féin has extensive links with political parties and social movements in Latin America, and points to the relationship between Britain and Ireland, historically that of coloniser and colonised, suggesting that it is therefore qualitatively different to that between Ireland and Latin America. In reference to immigration, Ruane recognises some institutionalised resistance to immigrants expressed in new Irish legislation. However she claims that Ireland has traditionally been a place which welcomes and assists new arrivals. Regarding the trial of the three Irishmen accused in Colombia, she asserts that only the reputation of the Colombian government, army, police and prison service, along with elements of the judiciary, has been damaged by this episode. From her own experience she has a positive view of the people and the cultures of Colombia, but criticises the abuse of authority by the rich and powerful.

It seems to me that the FARC-IRA affair represents one of the lowest points in the Irish relations with Colombia - and perhaps with Latin America - since the massive enrollment of Irish mercenaries almost two centuries ago to fight against Spanish colonial forces in Simón Bolívar's independence armies. In the present-day situation, the immigration controls in place for any visitor to Ireland are far more rigorous in the case of Colombian citizens than those of most other countries. The FARC-IRA affair did not help to ease those measures and did not contribute to facilitating free travel for Colombians. At the Colombian embassy in London I was informed by a spokesperson that owing to this affair the reputation of their country in Ireland has been negatively affected. [8] Conversely, since October 2001, the Irish are the only Europeans who are required to obtain a visa to enter Colombia.

News, Facts and Perceptions

Media reporting of the alleged FARC-IRA connection frequently comes across as a dichotomous discourse in which every player or episode is invariably consigned to one or the other side of a right-wrong divide. As a result of this, an astonishing number of print media and their online pages seem to have opted for one or the other position without further consideration of the numerous complexities of the situation.

One example is in the headlines, which are important in providing a brief summary of the news that follows, and indeed in attracting the audience's attention. The latter aim is often attained by paraphrasing literary texts or works of art - the subtitle of the first section of this article, 'Gangs of Colombia', is symptomatic of this trend, playing on the title of the film Gangs of New York - or by making an association with a popular historic event. News items relating to the FARC-IRA affair frequently include the title 'Colombia Three', thereby establishing an immediate association for Irish, and to a lesser extent UK audiences and readers, with the 'Birmingham Six' and the above mentioned 'Guildford Four'. All of these prisoners were proven to be innocent people framed by various members of the police force in the UK and imprisoned for offences and crimes which they did not commit. I could not access information on how the headline 'Colombia Three' originated and became popular among journalists and others writing about this matter, but it is clear that it is not a neutral heading. [9] Another rather clumsy headline used by some print media is 'The Colombia Connection' which recalls William Friedkin's film The French Connection (1971), inherently linking violence and drug trafficking with the South American country. Likewise the campaign name 'Bring Them Home' mirrors a number of anti-war crusades in the US.

Elaborating on the information available relating to alleged links between FARC and the IRA would be misleading given the difficulties in locating reliable sources. In my analysis of newspaper sources, I covered the period from August 2001 to January 2006 inclusive, and a variety of national newspapers in Colombia, Ireland and the United Kingdom which offer online websites. Very few of the features published on this matter that I was able to study can be characterised as providing neutral information, the balance being unambiguously against the accused men in the case of the majority of Colombian and British media, and vaguely in favour among their Irish colleagues. Ostensibly, journalists writing these articles did not have recourse to the trial documents and rulings, most notably absent were references to the text of the charges.

Simplify and exaggerate is often the mantra when information is scarce and contradictory, when the subject is difficult to explain to a broad audience, and when prejudices are widely rooted in public opinions. Used by management counsellors, pseudo-scientific strategists, and self-improvement book authors, this recipe is also a favourite among the press and politicians to reduce complex information to simplistic statements that are difficult to dispute. News items on the FARC-IRA affair tend to pigeonhole the three accused men, their lawyers, Sinn Féin and even their country of origin together with the Marxist FARC rebels, Cuban and Venezuelan governments, international terrorist networks, drug-traffickers, warlords and arms dealers in Colombian jungles. Prevalent on the other side of the divide are the US, British, Irish and European governments, in co-operation with the regular Colombian forces, law enforcement organisations combating drug and arms trafficking, the international war on terror, and even paramilitary groups such as AUC. [10]

Another over-simplified taxonomy divides the players in this affair between those belonging to the supposedly civilised world of North America and Europe and representatives of the perceived untamed societies of Latin America. This opposition, redolent of Oliver Goldsmith's The Traveller's prejudiced depictions of continental European peoples, is given further contours by the reality of Latin America's Europeanised elites who regard native cultures as backward and barbarous. An appalling example is Mario Vargas Llosa's recent article about successful political movements in Bolivia, Peru and Venezuela, in which the aspirations of the indigenous people are seen by the Peruvian-Spanish author as racist, nationalist and militarist. [11] Even more outdated and entirely useless are 'left' and 'right' categorisations, which, even acknowledging the use of 'centre' and the more nuanced 'centre-left' and 'centre-right', should be limited to their French Revolution context. Nevertheless they are employed with staggering frequency to classify people, political movements, media and even entire countries and continents.

How should one approach the analysis of the FARC-IRA affair? In view of these prejudiced categories and descriptions, the likelihood of the publication in our lifetimes of a complete, accurate and candid account is doubtful to say the least. If the objective is to achieve a simple elucidation of the affair without falling into the trap of creating a new conspiracy theory, perhaps it is only our children, or even grandchildren, who will benefit from the neutrality more easily afforded by a historical perspective. Writing the history of current events is never an easy ride, and it is a task most reviled by historians. Reliable documents are in short supply or difficult to obtain. Factual or in-depth research is often resisted by the actors in the affair, most of whom have a vested interest in the story. When 'good' and 'evil' are identified, people tend to justify themselves, and their susceptibility is intense.

With these potential pitfalls in mind, instead of trying to ascertain the real facts of the story of the three Irish men in Colombia, I endeavoured to expose some prevalent perceptions that are deeply rooted in the mentalities of the people of Colombia and Ireland. As a rule, according to Tzvetan Todorov, we tend to think in a binary mode, liberal/conservative, idealist/realist, left/right, active/passive, and so on. [12] It is not necessary to reject one or the other term in these oppositions, but rather this very way of conceptualising the problem.

There may be other ways to classify the behaviour of all the players in this puzzling affair. Human beings are morally undefined, good and bad at the same time. Instead of the many manifestations of the opposition between 'us' and 'them', I propose to use Todorov's qualifying categories - democratic and totalitarian - to regard the events in a different manner. We are all democratic and totalitarian, Latin American and European (and African and Asian), left- and right-wing, moral and wicked. But when we preach as high-priests of morality we do little to ameliorate sectarian divisions. As Renaud says in his other song 'La ballade Nord-Irlandaise':  Ce sont les hommes pas le curés / qui font pousser les orangers. [13]


Edmundo Murray



I am indebted to Johanna Cortés Nieto, Maria Alejandra Gonzalez-Perez, Claire Healy, Catherine Jennings, Fergal McAuliffe, Jorge Restrepo, Caitríona Ruane and Edward Walsh, for sharing with me their valuable information and views. I am also thankful to Jonathan McCormick and the CAIN Web Service (Conflict Archive on the Internet) for their authorisation to reproduce the mural photographs.


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Copyright © Society for Irish Latin American Studies, 2006

Online published: 1 March 2006
Edited: 07 May 2009

Murray, Edmundo, '
Explosive Journey: Perceptions of Latin America in the FARC-IRA Affair (2001-2005)' in "Irish Migration Studies in Latin America" 2006. Available online (, accessed .


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