BOGOTÁ and LONDON -
For decades the Provisional IRA (PIRA) were one of the most dangerous and sophisticated militant organizations in the world, actively exporting their methods and tactics to like-minded groups such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in Colombia. When an uneasy peace came to Ireland in 1998, this was turned on its head and the peacemakers of the world looked to Ireland. Despite the rise of new violent Republican organizations and their efforts to derail this process, the streets of Belfast and Derry are still quiet.
Now as a delegation of Northern Irish politicians meet with the FARC to discuss conflict resolution in the Cuban capital of Havana, echoes of the strengths and weaknesses of the 'Irish model' are ringing through as drug-fuelled splinter groups with ties to ex-paramilitary groups have emerged and threaten to derail a settlement by force.
Once again it's time for Colombia to look to the lessons of Ireland to avoid leaving the door open to splinter groups that form between the gaps of demobilisation, decommissioning and duplicity.
In the aftermath of decades of conflict in Northern Ireland, there were many thousands of combatants whose skills, such as bomb making and counter-surveillance, were ill suited to peacetime.
Groups such as Coiste na n-Iarchimí, which is led by former PIRA member Michael Culbert and funded by the EU, were set up in order to re-integrate and advocate for the rights of former Republican combatants. However even with that some, including Culbert himself, believe not enough has been done for former prisoners.
According to former official IRA member Henry Robinson "the failure to put in motion an early prevention system has ensured that 15 years later 'new brand IRA' groups remain active in working class unionist and catholic neighbourhoods in Lurgan, Derry and Ardoyne.
Robinson tells us that Colombia needs to do something now to avoid committing the same mistakes...to avoid leaving both ex-combatants and the communities they control behind.
Close to 20% of the FARC´s 8,000 rank-and-file members could form breakaway groups. In places like the provinces of Arauca on the northern border with Venezuela and Nariño on the southern border with Ecuador, the Colombian state has no real territorial control.
In a phone conversation with Antonio Navarro Wolf, a former M-19 guerrilla leader-turned Governor of Nariño, he told us that the Interior Ministry needs to begin now to use rural police instead of military soldiers. "The skills of ex-FARC guerrillas should certainly be used positively to provide intelligence to these police units," he says.
The benign duplicity of Republican leadership was one of the keys to the success of the peace process in Ireland, with hardliners being told one thing, and moderates another. This was combined with heavy engagement with local leaders and commanders throughout the process in order to keep as many on side as possible.
In this way each split, in 1986, 1997 and 2006 was kept relatively small. Even with the establishment of the so called 'New IRA', Republican splinter groups are still highly divided, with the Continuity IRA and Óglaigh na hÉireann refusing to join the new outfit and Republicans refusing to share the same landings in prison.
Just as the provisional movement had to contend with smaller organisations such as the Real and Continuity IRA poaching their members as they walked the road of peace, existing transnational crime syndicates, called the BACRIM, are pulling FARC members into their criminal ranks to boost their drug trafficking operations.
Over the last 2 to 3 years, the basic agreement has been that the FARC sell coca base to the BACRIM and these groups supply the guerrillas with not only money but also weapons.
One of the major differences between the FARC and the Provisional IRA comes down to the massive financial resources available to the rebels. According to Jeremy McDermott, Director of Insight Crime, a Medellín-based independent research institution, they have hundreds of millions of dollars at their disposal each year.
With this kind of financial leverage, local front commanders disconnected and uncertain about the peace talks can afford to deviate from the FARC´s central command.
McDermott tells us that, "The PIRA never really had much money...The FARC are awash in cash with local front commanders waiting to see which way the wind blows". One of the last questions remaining is "are they going to call themselves the Real FARC or the Continuity FARC?"
In the Northern Irish case, once the decision was taken to end the armed campaign the IRA would have preferred to simply 'dump arms' - in line with its preferred response on previous occasions. However, because its political representatives were trying to get into government, decommissioning was forced upon the IRA.
The mass decommissioning of weapons meant not only that it would be difficult for the Provisional IRA to go back to violence, but this also stunted the growth of splinter groups who did not have the option to capture the arms of their predecessors and had to build from a very low base. Although there are now hundreds of volunteers in Republican splinter groups in Ireland, one of the key challenges faced by these groups has been their lack of weaponry.
"While splinter groups don't have a significant presence for now, the FARC secretariat in Havana will have made a conscious decision to store their weapon supply with their 10,000-strong underground militia networks," says Rafael Guarín, a former Colombian Vice Minister for Defence (2010-2011).
Keeping unity and order amongst these underground groups in the coming years will be very difficult. Through these groups, the FARC will without doubt hold on to their homemade explosive materials, grenades, rockets and landmines while giving up a limited supply through the official disarmament process.
With access to drug money and weapons, the threat of breakaway FARC groups must be understood now as a serious threat to Colombia´s peace process.