DUBLIN, Ireland — The Irish like to be liked, and a mood of near ecstasy infected the country when U.S. President Barack Obama arrived on May 23 and told cheering crowds in Dublin he had come to reaffirm “bonds of affection” between the two countries.
But now we know what the American administration really thinks about us, thanks to the leaking of hundreds of confidential cables from the U.S. Embassy in Dublin by the whistle-blowing organization WikiLeaks.
Messages sent to Washington by American diplomats in recent years depict the Irish political establishment as unaccountable and fond of the prerequisites of office, with ministers floundering as they tried to cope with a catastrophic financial crisis.
The daily Irish Independent obtained 1,900 cables from WikiLeaks and published extracts over several days last week.
In a 2009 message marked “confidential,” U.S. Ambassador Dan Rooney termed Irish elected leaders “an often unaccountable political class” and referred scathingly to “the perks it allows itself.” He was commenting on the resignation of prominent Fianna Fail politician John O’Donoghue over expenses he claimed as speaker of the Irish parliament.
In a cable dated February the same year, Deputy Chief of Mission Robert Faucher described as worrying the government’s “lack of institutional capacity to deal with the banking crisis and a burgeoning fiscal deficit.” The financial regulators were “wholly incapable of understanding” the deception practiced by Anglo-Irish Bank, he wrote, referring to Ireland’s worst performing financial institution. Unless the government acted quickly, “Ireland’s tarnished reputation could blacken further.”
Another cable noted dryly that former Defense Minister Willie O’Dea was appointed on his “vote-getting potential, not his defense expertise.”
A previous U.S. ambassador, James Kenny, told the State Department that Brian Cowen, who was prime minister until February, was affectionately known as BIFFO, which Kenny explained “stands for ‘Big, Ignorant F-ker from Offaly,” and that this “suited him well.” Added Kenny, “He likes to socialize with his constituents in local pubs,” and he “has a good singing voice.”
The embassy documents reveal that the top priority in Washington’s dealings with Dublin concern the use of Shannon airport as a stopover and refueling base for U.S. military aircraft en route to Iraq and Afghanistan. Hundreds of thousands of U.S. military personnel transit through Shannon every year, reaching half a million in 2005.
The cables depict a deferential Irish government turning a blind eye to the possibility of so-called rendition flights — transferring American prisoners to other jurisdictions — using Shannon airport, which is situated near Limerick city on Ireland’s southwest coast.
Shannon goes to the heart of the relationship between the United States and neutral Ireland, according to former Irish diplomat Eamon Delaney, in an analysis of Irish-U.S. ties.
“We are so close to the U.S. as to be virtually the 51st state sometimes,” commented Delaney, “and yet we are scornful of any military alliance.”
Irish government hypocrisy is suggested in a cable from another U.S. ambassador, Tom Foley, in November 2008, revealing that a parliamentary sub-committee on human rights issues arising from public protests against U.S. flights through Shannon was a “sop” to the minority Green Party in government, and predicting any noise on the issue would soon die down.
Foley was right: the sub-committee met only three times in two years and, according to Amnesty International, “failed to deliver.”
“Yes it’s a special relationship but the U.S. still doesn’t trust us,” said a headline in the Irish Independent Wednesday, over an article by political editor Fionnan Sheahan who pointed out the intensity of U.S. lobbying of Irish ministers over Shannon revealed in the cables.
This lack of faith in the Irish was once conveyed to this correspondent by a senior White House official. After Ireland was elected in a secret United Nations ballot to a two-year term on the U.N. Security Council in 2001 the official disclosed that the United States did not vote for Ireland “because we don’t trust the Irish.” Irish officials believed at the time they had America’s backing.
The WikiLeaks revelations recall an incident in the 1980s when Dublin-based U.S. diplomat Robin Berrington was sent back to Washington after a letter he wrote to colleagues in the State Department revealing his discontent with his posting to Ireland, which he described as “small potatoes,” was leaked to the Irish Times.
As happened in other countries where U.S. diplomatic cables have been made public by WikiLeaks, the confidential messages emanating from the U.S. embassy in Ballsbridge, Dublin, contain some embarrassments for local politicians.
Labour Party leader Eamon Gilmore quietly told the embassy that he would support a second referendum on the Lisbon Treaty in 2008, while publicly saying the opposite, according to Ambassador Foley. Gilmore, now deputy prime minister in a coalition government with Fine Gael, “explained his public posture of opposition to a second referendum as ‘politically necessary’ for the time being,” Foley told the State Department.
At least one diplomat in the U.S. embassy has a mischievous sense of humor.
Faucher detailed to the State Department how the cash-strapped Irish government planned to raise extra revenue by claiming a world copyright on shamrocks, shillelaghs and leprechauns and selling a calendar featuring naked cabinet members. His cable was dated April 1.