Government parties show divergent views on spying issue

Coalition either unconcerned about practice in Ireland or unwilling to criticise the US

Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore have made significantly different noises about potential spying by US authorities in Ireland and Europe. Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore have made significantly different noises about potential spying by US authorities in Ireland and Europe. Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times.

Fri, Nov 1, 2013, 08:45

The belated disclosure by the Government that it has raised with the United States the issue of spying by the National Security Agency in Europe and in Ireland strongly suggests marked differences in the levels of concerns of both Government parties.

It is beyond dispute that the Coalition is collectively reluctant to shout or complain too loudly or make any probative inquiries as to whether the bugging and covert surveillance that has occurred in Germany, France and elsewhere has happened in Ireland.

It took a question from The Irish Times at the weekly Government briefing on yesterday to elicit the information that senior Irish officials had raised concerns earlier this summer about widespread spying by the US in Ireland and throughout the EU.

The first thing is that you have to distinguish between the levels of reluctance. It is partial on the part of the Labour Party and one hundred per cent total on the part of Fine Gael.

Last week Taoiseach Enda Kenny gave an extraordinary non answer when asked about it in Brussels.

It’s worth reading his reply in full:

“Have I raised that with the United States? No, I haven’t raised it with America. I haven’t. But I said yesterday, if the allegations were true that the private mobile phone of the German chancellor was being listened into, then I find that an appalling situation.

“The Chancellor herself has spoken to the American President about it. She has also made it very clear that she wants to move on here now to the future and both herself and President Hollande in making a declaration with the United States, I think, will build on that.

“So I think this is an issue, obviously has been in worldwide news, but she has been very clear that she wants to move on here.”

Kenny said he proceeded on the basis that his telephone was tapped but seemed to be unconcerned about it. It was evident from his reply that if the US was tapping his phone it wasn’t a matter of great concern for him, and he had no curiosity to find out.

At the same time, if the telephone of Angela Merkel was being tapped then that was an appalling situation.

The net message was. It’s happened but, sure, let’s move on.

I’m not trying to be facetious or be too Oliver Callanesque but when reading it back, I couldn’t help but think of that classic closing scene in Some Like it Hot where Jerry (dressed in drag as a woman) tries to gently break the truth (and break off the engagement) to the relentless suitor Osgood.

In a final act of desperation Jerry pulls off his wig and ditches the falsetto voice saying: “I’m a man”.

Osgood shrugs his shoulder while smiling benignly replying with the killer line: “Well, nobody’s perfect!”

When journalists asked the Government spokesman whether the issue had been raised with the US, no information was divulged on the grounds of “national security”.

It was only this week that the Labour position departed from that of Fine Gael. Gilmore’s spokesman referred to a number of written parliamentary replies the Tánaiste had given in July.

The context were revelations leaked by the former NSA analysis Edward Snowden showing that the American spy agencies had bugged the Justus Lipsius building in Brussels, the heart of the European Union’s operations.

Gilmore, in the written replies, revealed his senior officials had raised the clandestine surveillance with the US embassy in Ireland, raising concerns about the EU and Ireland being bugged. At the time, he said the allegations, if true, were the equivalent of the EU bugging Capitol Hill in Washington.

Why the Tánaiste did not make those concerns more overtly public until now - and then only after prompting - remains unclear.

Obviously, the Irish Government does not want to antagonise the US with which we have a very strong relationship. The Fine Gael ‘softly softly’ approach - ie zero criticism - is almost as abject of that of the Fianna Fáil government of the early 2000s, where then minister for foreign affairs Brian Cowen when to extraordinarily convoluted and mind-numbingly boring lengths not to utter the smallest sliver of criticism of the US’s plan to invade Iraq.

Eamon Gilmore has raised concerns but tacitly. Enda Kenny doesn’t seem to have any. The dominant countries in Europe have - in contradistinction - expressed outrage and anger at the scope and extent of surveillance, bugging and snooping by the US into the private lives of their political leaders and millions of citizens. Further reports this morning suggest that the NSA and its associated agencies in the US and elsewhere have the power to intercept all the content going through Google and Yahoo.

That level of intrusion is extraordinary and you’d expect our Government to respond more robustly than shrugging its shoulders like Osgood and proclaiming “Well, nobody’s perfect!”.

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