Dull food and unpredictable people - what a US diplomat thought of Ireland in 1980
’Wild-eyed’ republicans or Anglo-Irish types who spoke as if they were sucking marbles
Robin Berrington was ordered home after some uncomplimentary things he wrote about the Irish became public. Photograph: P Flannagan
A leaked despatch, an embarrassed diplomat and a trans-Atlantic contretemps. This scenario has played out before, here in Ireland, involving the US embassy in Dublin.
The diplomat was press attaché Robin Berrington, who was ordered home after some uncomplimentary things he wrote about the Irish became public. They were contained in a letter he photocopied and sent to officials in the US State Department at the end of 1980, a copy of which was leaked to this newspaper.
Ireland, he wrote, was small potatoes compared to other countries. No great issues burned up the wires between Dublin and Washington. The country and its food were dull. The people were enigmatic and unpredictable. They had “too much human nature – violent and compassionate – for their own good.” They included “wild-eyed” Irish republicans and Anglo-Irish types who spoke as if they were sucking marbles.
As news editor at the time, I assured the editor, Douglas Gageby, that the diplomat would not be fired if we published the letter, but would instead be praised for his candour.
Alas, next morning the US ambassador William Shannon told Berrington to leave Ireland immediately.
I had lunched occasionally with Robin, a slight, charming man in his early forties, a lover of the arts, who despaired about the quality of opera and ballet in Ireland and longed to be posted to Japan where he had studied as a student.
That morning I called to see him as he was packing, confessed my role in publication, and expressed my dismay at his banishment.
He flew out to a hostile media reception. The Washington Post announced: “Small potatoes line irks Irish”, the New York Times accused him of creating an “Irish stew”, and Time magazine fumed that he had “outraged the Irish”.
Not a bit of it. The Irish, with a few exceptions, were not irked at all.
Years later he told me he received a “box-load” of supportive letters from Ireland. Seventeen Irish journalists wrote to the State Department demanding his reinstatement. On RTÉ Gay Byrne extolled his honesty. An Irish Times editorial proposed Robin as next US ambassador.
It helped that he had also written that he found the English “insufferable”, in contrast to the Irish who were “at least warm, lively, human beings”.
The Washington Post later reversed itself and said Bord Fáilte should hire Berrington as a consultant, and the New York Times followed suit, acknowledging widespread praise for his Irish comments.
The affair is relatively minor compared with the cold war that has broken out between Whitehall and the White House over the leaking of British ambassador Kim Darroch’s candid remarks about Donald Trump. But the lessons are the same.
The British establishment, with the dishonourable exception of Boris Johnson, stood by their man, and rightly so. Confidential assessments are the essence of diplomacy. Whatever about the wisdom of Berrington writing his letter, it was the US ambassador in Ireland who was left looking a bit foolish in the end, for firing a talented press attaché who was the victim of a leak from an ill-disposed colleague.
The fact is that no one could really disagree with the thrust of Berrington’s letter, just as no one in London can seriously take issue with Darroch’s withering assessment of Donald Trump. Arguably truth-telling has enhanced both their reputations.
The story ends well for Berrington. After things cooled down, the State Department sent him to Japan, his dream assignment. The US ambassador there, Mike Mansfield, said he had good use for someone who could compose such a stylish letter.
Robin Berrington enjoyed 18 years in Tokyo, writing the ambassador’s speeches and occasionally standing in as an extra for ballet and opera companies that needed a western face. He later served as press attaché in the US embassy in the UK, which was very big potatoes, and where great issues do burn up the wires between London and Washington, indeed to the point of incineration in recent days.