Cables prove there is no such thing as a free St Patrick’s Day lunch in the White House
Relationships between Ireland and the US were not all plain sailing
Taoiseach Charles Haughey, right, with artist Pat Liddy and US ambassador Margaret Heckler in 1988. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh/The Irish Times
As evidenced by the diplomatic cables from Ireland to the US state department in 1989, obtained by Gavin Sheridan under the US Freedom of Information Act and published in recent days by The Irish Times, such historic documents are an intriguing collage of rehashed published political analysis, gossip, speculation, nuanced or self-serving commentary and strictly confidential strategic advice.
It is this colourful mixture that provides the historian with much useful material, particularly in relation to a key theme – the US perception of the Irish situation and performance of Irish political leaders, and how best to use positive US-Irish relations to benefit US foreign policy.
The year 1989 was an important one in Ireland because of a sense that economically, in US ambassador to Ireland Margaret Heckler’s phrase, “Ireland has turned the corner” but also because of Charles Haughey’s questionable decision to call a general election. Internationally, it was also a seminal year because of the continuing East-West thaw and its consequences that became so dramatically apparent by the end of that year. Haughey was credited by Heckler with being “determined to rise above his hitherto dominant image as the ultimate political boss” and it will be interesting to see if historians will vindicate that assertion or, indeed, Heckler’s assessments of the negotiation of the Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrats coalition in 1989: the PDs, she suggested, “won the negotiating battle over Haughey’s Fianna Fáil. But Haughey may have won the war.”
Despite the dramatic claim by Heckler early in 1989 that Haughey’s illness in 1988 had fundamentally altered his outlook, this was not an assured conclusion, and by July 1989 she was more equivocal: “Did his serious illness last fall really change him?” The “current impotence” of Fine Gael was also a preoccupation. In July 1989, Heckler wrote “social democracy has not yet won the soul of Fine Gael, particularly outside Dublin where the local notables of small towns still sup regularly with the parish pastor”.
Strutting the stage
These cables reveal a Haughey in his ideal political position, strutting the international stage as a statesman towards the end of a long career and poised to take over the presidency of the EC in 1990. From the US perspective, this was viewed as a positive; as Heckler recognised in a letter to US secretary of state James Baker in March 1989, in relation to the US desire to see greater trade liberalisation in the EC, “I am convinced that the Irish tenure in the presidency of the EC next year can be useful to us.”
Haughey sought to curry favour with Baker by promising that when Ireland assumed the EC presidency, he would resist any “fortress of Europe” mentality and use his position to resolve difficulties between the US and Europe. In May 1989, Heckler dined with Peter Sutherland, Ireland’s former EC commissioner, who warned of London-Bonn tensions on Nato spilling over to economic issues and of the need to keep the trade and defence debates separate, which of course was in the interests of Ireland.