Looking grim and neat in their pressed shirts and ties, the three Irishmen at the center of a diplomatic storm that threatens to rattle the fragile Northern Ireland peace process appeared in a Colombian court for the first time last month since their controversial trial began a year ago.
The strange, compelling saga of three Irishmen in a Colombian court dates back to August 2001, when Martin McCauley, James Monaghan and Niall Connolly were arrested in the Colombian capital of Bogota as they stepped off a plane arriving from a region of the country held by FARC, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.
Colombian prosecutors accuse the three middle-aged men of training FARC rebels in the use of explosives and terrorist tactics. They are also accused of holding false papers. If convicted, they could get up to 20 years in a Colombian jail.
The three Irishmen, for their part, have vigorously denied the charges, saying they were in the South American nation to study the peace talks between FARC and Colombian government officials, which have since ceased. They have also expressed concerns over the fairness of the Colombian justice system.
But among many Colombians, the arrest of the three men with past links to the Irish Republican Army has fueled anger over what they believe is an example of an international terrorist group bringing state-of-the-art know-how into Colombia's brutal 38-year-old civil war.
Proof of the export of IRA's urban terror skills to FARC, according to Colombian officials, came on the night of Feb. 7, when a massive bomb blast in an upscale Bogota nightclub killed 36 people. It followed a daring attack in the heart of the capital last August, just minutes before President Alvaro Uribe was sworn into office.
And back home in Northern Ireland, the arrests of the three Irishmen have been seized upon by some unionists as a sign of republican disinterest in implementing a cease-fire under the terms of the peace process by engaging in international terrorist activities.
Republicans, most of whom are Roman Catholics, hope for an ultimate merger of the British province of Northern Ireland with the Republic of Ireland to the south. Unionists, most of whom are Protestants, are those who believe Northern Ireland should remain part of the United Kingdom.
Terrorist Equivalent of Management Consultants
In the tenuous world of peace processes, Northern Ireland is sometimes touted as a successful work in progress since the historic 1998 Good Friday Agreement was signed a year after the IRA agreed to a cease-fire. The deal paved the way for the IRA's political ally, Sinn Fein, to join multiparty peace talks.
But ideological rifts within the ranks on both sides of the sectarian divide have placed serious hurdles along the difficult course of maintaining the peace in Northern Ireland.
On the Republican side, two breakaway groups — the Continuity IRA and the Real IRA — accuse Sinn Fein and the mainstream IRA of turning their backs on Irish republican principles and have continued to mount sporadic attacks in Northern Ireland and Britain.
But quite apart from domestic attacks, recent reports indicate the breakaway IRA groups might be fanning out some of its experienced militants to far-flung corners of the world as a sort of terrorist equivalent of management consultants to militant groups in distant lands.