“Gorbomania” has swept the country

US ambassador to Ireland Margaret Heckler didn’t know we’re masters at oiling pragmatism with plamás

Mon, Aug 12, 2013, 08:39

It used to be that Cathleen Ní Houlihan only had eyes for Uncle Sam.

Now the two-timing trollop was lavishing her charms upon a communist world leader and brazenly flying the red flag over Irish soil.

Ireland’s willingness to rush into the arms of any world superpower that happened to be passing did not impress the US. When Charlie Haughey treated Mikhail Gorbachev to a Full Irish Welcome to mark his brief visit here in 1989, there seemed a touch of the green-eyed monster about America’s reaction.

“Gorbomania has swept the country,” reported US ambassador Margaret Heckler to her boss in Washington.

“One hour of talks between Gorbachev and Haughey during a stopover at Shannon airport constitutes the first ever Soviet-Ireland summit,” she snippily observed.

Not only that, said Heckler, but she believed we fell hook, line and sinker for the sweet nothings whispered by the Russian interloper.

“The upshot was a solid victory for the Gorbachev charm offensive as the Irish let themselves be convinced that they have a role to play in the democratic evolution of the Soviet Union.”

Her cable from Dublin tells of “mob scenes” during Raisa Gorbachev’s visit to a folk park, fawning uninterrupted media coverage of the short trip and a once hostile clergy crumbling in the presence of the president of the USSR.

“There wasn’t a comment to be heard that wasn’t positive. Even the elderly pastor of the local parish found it impossible to recall the days when the sight of the red flag flying on Irish soil would have given the hierarchy apoplexy,” marvelled the ambassador.

She didn’t know us that well. We’re past masters at oiling pragmatism with plamás.

Holy Catholic Ireland may still have been praying for the conversion of Russia, but the conversion of Russian roubles into Irish pounds was more important to us in 1989.

Taoiseach Charles Haughey knew that and was more than happy to roll out the red carpet for Gorbachev and his entourage as they stopped off to refuel en route to Cuba.

Heckler was very impressed by the Soviet Union’s skilful handling of the event and the president’s statement that his visit “was not a stopover but a milestone”.

Huffy tone
This soothed media fears that the “summit” would be dismissed as an extended photocall. The Soviet president left the Irish “delighted” but “substantively little was accomplished”. This conclusion may have been in keeping with the slightly huffy tone of the cable, but Ireland’s push for business in the emerging Russian market was being noted internationally.

Heckler did not underestimate the over-the-top Irish reaction to Gorbachev’s presence. The fact that he was only in the country for a couple of hours made no difference. The next day’s papers carried page upon page of coverage.

Big crowds turned out to catch a glimpse of the glamorous Mrs Gorbachev, who toured Bunratty Folk Park while her husband discussed global politics with the taoiseach. Raisa and the political wives were conveyed by limousine to look at thatched cottages and a man driving a horse and cart.

Haughey adored every minute of his Soviet-Irish summit. He agreed with his distinguished visitor that we needed a Europe from “the edge of the Atlantic to the Urals” and spoke of “linking the Volga to the Shannon”. They discussed global issues and Haughey asked the president for a “progress report” on his plan of Perestroika.

“Haughey’s advisers tell us he is elated,” wrote Heckler. And then some, one imagines.

CJH, shooting the breeze with a fellow international political titan while the likes of Albert Reynolds and Gerry Collins waited outside, along with half of Leinster House and the whole of Clare County Council.

They toasted one other with Irish coffees. Afterwards, an enthralled Haughey delivered his verdict: he found Gorbachev “stimulating and very interesting” and the meeting was “successful”.

Things couldn’t have gone any better. Haughey revealed that his guest from Moscow was not merely impressed by the Irish weather, but “very ecstatic” about it.

The Taoiseach invited Gorbachev to come back for another visit and he said he would.

And he did, but it wasn’t for a number of years when both men were gone from power. Then taoiseach Bertie Ahern took him on a tour of Dublin’s Meath Street, which included a look inside a butcher’s shop. The locals cheered and instantly christened him “Mr Gorbychops”.

The welcome for the president of the USSR came from across the political spectrum.

Proinsias de Rossa, then leader of the Workers’ Party, said Gorbachev “had won the affection and admiration not just of socialists and communists but of all those who would like to see a just and lasting peace”.

Limerick’s Jim Kemmy, president of the Democratic Socialist Party, was quoted thus: “I never thought I’d live to see the day – and not an anti-communist bleat out of anyone.”

As for Haughey, how he must have loved it when the leader of the Soviet superpower spoke of “a meeting of equals”. Mikhail and Charlie, two small men, striding along shoulder to shoulder – one wearing a fedora and the other a Charvet shirt.

Elated? They probably had to hose him down after the jet departed. At least Haughey was happy.

But if Uncle Sam’s nose was out of joint, he could still look down it at us while pondering “Gorbomania” and the success of the Soviet charm offensive on the Auld Sod.