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

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.

In relation to Margaret Thatcher, Sutherland also warned of the US "being too identified with her stridency", and Heckler concluded, "it seems incumbent on us to shore up the flank on the trade side".

Superficially, much of the diplomacy was about, in Baker's phrase, "affirming the close ties between Ireland and the US", but, despite that, it was clearly not all plain diplomatic sailing. Immigration reform in the US was regarded as "not on" and there was a determination in the US not to give an inch on this. Brian Donnelly, chairman of the Friends of Ireland group in the House of Representatives, made it clear in January 1989 "there is little hope for an amnesty Bill" and was "pessimistic on longer-term immigration reform". There was also an endurance of the belief in Dublin, as Heckler put it in March 1989, "that the state department is Anglophile and has little time for the Irish view or Northern Ireland".

Cagey approach
Haughey could be pragmatic and cagey when it was in his interests to be. Heckler wrote of the "generally pro-Arab, pro-Palestinian approach" of Ireland and suggested, "Haughey will probably not raise this" during his US visit. The Irish government, it seems, also deliberately avoided confirming to the US the suggestion that a cattle export agreement between Libya and the Waterford Livestock and Meat Company followed "representations made on their behalf" by Haughey.

In relation to the evolution of Irish foreign policy, these cables underline the relevance of the observation of Irish historian Desmond Williams in the 1970s: "two principal points arise for a small state; policy cannot be a single grand design and freedom of action is limited". This was recognition of the reality of interdependence but also of Ireland's overall insignificance; in the week in March 1989 that Baker met Haughey in the US for example, Baker also met the Israeli, Australian and Spanish foreign ministers and the Jamaican prime minister. Haughey was squeezed into a busy schedule.

Given those limitations, it may come as a surprise that, in April 1989, US president George Bush asked Haughey to raise the issue of Central America with Russian president Mikhail Gorbachev, who Haughey was due to meet in Shannon. But perhaps this underlines that, as far as the US was concerned, there was no such thing as a free St Patrick's Day lunch, and Haughey was being asked to sing for it a few weeks after the festivities in the White House.

Bush wanted a discontinuance of Soviet and Cuban assistance to Nicaragua. The reality of the Gorbachev-Haughey exchange, however, as Heckler recorded, was that "Haughey raised the issue during the leaders' 10-minute tête-à-tête with only interpreters present" and "Gorbachev simply noted the point" but "Haughey believes he has accommodated the president's request". Heckler noted, "Little of substance had occurred."

Servile vs pragmatic
Haughey's approach might be seen as servile or pragmatic or even both, but the likelihood is that he was playing it safe, as promoting Soviet-Irish economic ties was far more important to the Irish than US relations with Nicaragua, and, in Heckler's view, "the Soviets played it skilfully and subtly, underlining, without ever mentioning the word, the benefits to Ireland of neutrality".

Understandably, when Haughey died in 2006 there was much space devoted to consideration of his impact and legacy. But in the absence of archival material, State and personal, any conclusions had to be qualified. Much of the relevant State material in relation to his time in office in the 1980s, for example, would fall under the 30-year rule as established in Ireland under the National Archives Act of 1986.

Given that 30-year rule, caution on the part of the historian is still advisable in relation to reaching conclusions about the Haughey era. However, as these 1989 cables illustrate, one of the interesting developments of recent times in relation to access to archival documents has been the release of material to journalists under freedom of information Acts that offer fascinating glimpses of what was going on behind the scenes less than 30 years ago. Alongside that development, Britain is intent, from 2014, on releasing two years of records until a 20-year rule is established, creating an interesting dilemma for the Irish State. If it sticks to its 30-year rule, will its record releases significantly lag behind the US and British releases, creating a new challenge for the researcher in terms of a balanced perspective that can incorporate all the angles, US, British and Irish?

Whatever about the merits of reducing the 30-year rule (and such a move raises troubling issues about material too sensitive to be released, people referred to in the documents still living, and an insufficient time lapse to see issues in their proper historical context), there is also a practical issue.

Archive infrastructure
The National Archives of Ireland is chronically underfunded and simply does not have the space or resources to operate a 20-year rule. Without proper investment, by next year, the archives will not even be able to cope with processing releases under the 30-year rule. That is how critical and embarrassing, given what is happening elsewhere, the Irish situation has become.

Diarmaid Ferriter is professor of modern Irish history at UCD

Diarmaid Ferriter

Diarmaid Ferriter

Diarmaid Ferriter, a contributor to The Irish Times, is professor of modern Irish history at University College Dublin. He writes a weekly opinion column