Cables express surprise at excitement over first Irish-Soviet summit

US envoy said little was achieved but economic ties were given a boost

The charismatic Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev stopped over at Shannon on April 2nd, 1989, on his way to Cuba, for a meeting with then taoiseach Charles Haughey. It was the first summit between the two countries.

A cable from US ambassador to Ireland Margaret Heckler to secretary of state Jim Baker reported on the significance of the meeting.

“One hour of talks between Gorbachev and Haughey during a stopover at Shannon airport on April 2nd constitutes the first ever Soviet-Irish summit,” she wrote.

"Substantively little was accomplished but growing Soviet-Irish economic ties have been given a boost with Gorbachev's invitation for high- powered Irish ministerial delegation to visit Moscow later this year to explore a range of economic deals."


She told Baker that Gorbachev “promoted his idea of a common European home and his hopes for development of trade between the EC and CMEA. Haughey indicated some similarities in Irish and Soviet disarmament positions but refused to be drawn into the modernisation debate.

"He agreed with the Atlantic to the Urals formula and the need for more East-West trade and urged Soviet support for Unifil.

US-Soviet summit
"He briefed Gorbachev on Northern Ireland and Gorbachev said he would continue to discuss Northern Ireland with Mrs Thatcher. Haughey and the Irish are delighted with the visit and have once again offered Ireland for a US-Soviet summit."

The cable said that Haughey told Gorbachev that Northern Ireland was his government’s principal concern as it had a major impact on the Irish domestic scene and created perpetual trouble in Anglo-Irish relations.

"The 1985 Anglo Irish Agreement achieved some results but not enough. Irish unity remains an aspiration. Haughey thanked Gorbachev for Soviet interest in the Birmingham Six and Guildford Four cases where he feared a continuing miscarriage of justice.

“At the press conference Gorbachev deftly avoided political difficulties by confining his remarks to the ‘human dimension’ of the Northern Ireland problem.

“This has led the Irish to believe that Gorbachev will raise some Northern Ireland issues with Thatcher and, in an unusual gesture (for him), Haughey has called Thatcher to brief her on the meeting . . .

"The Irish are delighted with the visit," Heckler reported. "A two-hour stopover has generated more positive publicity for the Soviet Union here than in the entire history of the state.

“The Soviets played it skilfully and subtly underlining, without ever mentioning the word, the benefits to Ireland of neutrality.”

Central America
The day before Gorbachev arrived, Haughey received a letter from US president George HW Bush asking him to raise the issue of Central America with the Soviet leader.

Bush told Haughey he had “sent Mikhail Gorbachev a letter on the eve of his departure for Havana outlining our concerns about – and urging a change in – Soviet policy toward Central America.

"In particular, I underscored the difficulties we have reconciling the language of Soviet 'new thinking' with continuing high levels of Soviet and Cuban assistance to Nicaragua.

“As you know there is no conceivable military threat that justifies that assistance (which last year totalled almost $1 billion).

"I noted further that the assistance is almost certain to be used to undercut diplomatic efforts, as evidenced by Nicaraguan and Cuban use of Soviet aid to support violent destabilisation of the democratically elected government of El Salvador. "

Bush wrote that “an initiative by the Soviet Union and Cuba to shut off the assistance pipeline feeding armed conflict in the region would pay large dividends in American goodwill and would suggest that Soviet ‘new thinking’ was to be taken seriously.

Regional initiatives
"As Jim Baker told you during your recent visit to Washington, we will judge the Soviet Union's regional initiatives by their results which should include ending military assistance to Nicaragua."

The US president hoped that given “Ireland’s interest in promoting democracy in Central America . . . you will urge him to support diplomatic efforts to bring peace to the region by stopping the shipment of weapons to the region.”

Haughey wrote back to Bush to say that he “availed of the occasion of my talks with President Gorbachev to convey to him emphatically our interest in good Soviet-American relations.

“I expressed to him our satisfaction that these relations had progressed very favourably recently and our hope that developments in Central America will not put any obstacles in the way of their further favourable development.”

The then taoiseach said that Gorbachev "expressed his hopes for the favourable development of his bilateral relations with the United States and some worry which he had in this regard which I have conveyed to your embassy here".

Stephen Collins

Stephen Collins

Stephen Collins is a columnist with and former political editor of The Irish Times