US planned to use Shannon to transport troops Washington wanted to use airport without clearance
MILITARY STOPOVERS:WITHOUT ASKING permission, the US government planned to use Shannon airport as a transit facility for 12,000 troops returning home from duty with the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) in Germany at the height of the Cold War.
Documents released this week show that the US authorities intended to land their troops at the airport in February 1979 without notifying or seeking clearance from the Fianna Fáil government led by Jack Lynch, which found out about the plan indirectly.
Given the tensions between the US and Soviet blocs at the time, the troop stopovers could have precipitated an international diplomatic incident, with Ireland at the centre of the dispute.
Official reaction here was one of considerable concern given Ireland's status as a neutral country which was not a member of Nato.
The newly-released documents show that an "internal American telex" requesting facilities for two US customs officials who would be dealing with the troops at Shannon came to the attention of the Department of Foreign Affairs late on the evening of Friday, February 2nd, 1979.
Having received the telex from its own government, the US embassy passed on the request in a telephone call to the Department of Foreign Affairs, followed by a photocopy of the original message.
This aroused concern in Iveagh House and a memo to minister for foreign affairs Michael O'Kennedy from the department's political director and deputy secretary Noel Dorr states that the US request "seems to raise larger issues which require your decision as a matter of some urgency".
The point at issue was that, apart from seeking customs facilities, "the US embassy . . . do not seem to have requested any permission for the flights themselves".
What was in question, according to the US embassy telex, was "a series of 45 commercial charter flights returning to the US some 12,000 troops from Germany" in the period of February 12th to February 28th.
Setting out the arguments in favour of permitting the 90-minute stopovers, the memo notes the prospect of "considerable financial and commercial benefit" including landing fees of about £1,000 for every "jumbo" jet plus duty-free sales to 12,000 people.
"It may be somewhat embarrassing to intervene to block this operation seven days beforehand, granted that the US is a friendly country and that it seems to have assumed that everything is in order.
"To do so may also point out again very explicitly that we are unwilling to allow facilities to members of the Nato alliance."
As against that, the operation was explicitly stated in the telex to be a "military reinforcement exercise"; the sheer size of the contingent and the fact that the troops would be in uniform made it "very likely that the operation would come to public attention and perhaps lead to Parliamentary Questions in the Dáil".
"The casual way in which the matter was approached . . . suggested that this may be a 'try-on' on the US side. (A big issue for Nato has always been the ability of the US to reinforce its force in Europe and particularly in Germany and it may be that they want to ease into the use of Shannon as a staging post if we see no objection.)"
The fact that the troops were returning from Germany might make it less objectionable but what if "Warsaw Pact countries were to use Shannon as a staging-point on return from Cuba?"
"It is very likely that there would be some publicity at Shannon," the minister was told, "and you may expect a question in the Dáil from Dr Noel Browne or criticism in, for example, Hibernia ."
Despite the obvious commercial benefits and the danger of offending the Americans, a further departmental memo states that, "the US embassy has taken too much for granted" and the whole affair raised "serious policy issues".
The matter was discussed at cabinet on February 6th, and an interdepartmental meeting at Iveagh House that afternoon noted that the commercial benefits would be in the order of £250,000 but that a major issue still remained as to whether even a friendly country should be allowed transit facilities related to "the manoeuvres of a military alliance of which Ireland is not a member".
On balance, the minister was urged by the department to "regretfully explain" to the US embassy that the stopovers could not be allowed. If this course did not recommend itself to him, then transit facilities could be "magnanimously" permitted on this occasion on the clear understanding that it did not set a precedent for the future.
In the event, the US government changed its mind but the more colourful details of the affair remained out of the news media.
A short item in The Irish Times of February 17th reported that Prestwick airport in Scotland had been chosen instead of Shannon.