THE UNITED STATES believed that the Irish government had tried to clamp down on its use of Shannon airport for military flights as a political ploy ahead of the general elections, while privately wanting to safeguard the local economy.
The revelation is contained in the WikiLeaks ‘Cablegate’ documents, a leaked collection of diplomatic cable messages sent to and from the United States’ worldwide embassies, in which details of the US’s private suspicions about Ireland are publicly revealed for the first time.
The leaked document also indicates that the United States was considering launching a civil case against the ‘Shannon Five’, a group of anti-war activists who were acquitted of criminal damage to a US plane in 2003, or seeking financial compensation from the Irish government.
The 2006 memo reveals:
- the close relationship between the US embassy and Fianna Fáil officials
- that a senior government official dismissed the Shannon Five acquittal as “bizarre”, assuring the US that the verdict did not reflect government policy
- how dependent Shannon Airport was on the revenue from the US flights
- that the government had tried to guarantee the continuation of US flights at Shannon, in the face of public criticism
- that Russia used Ireland as a stop-off point in the transfer of military goods to Venezuela
- how the United States commended the government’s refusal to pursue “inadvertant breaches of weapons and uniform policies”
In a memo written on September 5, 2006, then-US ambassador to Ireland James C Kenny sought guidance from Washington on how to respond to the new measures, which would require the United States to fill out extensive paperwork on all flights going through the Co Clare airport in advance of landing there.
One eye on the elections
Such measures had been introduced almost solely “to dampen public criticism ahead of the 2007 general elections,” Kenny wrote, believing that the move was motivated by the popular aquittal of the Shannon Five, who had faced criminal charges for damaging a US plane at the airport in 2003.
The United States had objected to that ruling, and had considered either launching a civil case to pursue damages from the five activists, or presenting…
…an itemized bill for aircraft damages to the Irish Government, either to seek compensation outright or, atleast, to convey [US Government] dissatisfaction with the Shannon Five verdict.
Kenny implies, however, that the government had privately wanted to keep operating the flights, mentioning that government ministers had questioned the Shannon Five ruling and had “consistently [...] acted to ensure continued US military transits at Shannon in the face of public criticism”.
The economic benefit was also important, with the United States paying €10.3m to Shannon in 2005 alone for the use of the airport, fuel, and catering for the 340,000 American troops that had passed through. That year, he added, Shannon had only turned a profit of €2.9m.
The document also quotes Rory Montgomery, the political director at the Department of Foreign Affairs, who described the verdict as “bizarre”.
Avoiding damage to Fianna Fáil
Washington was wary of causing political damage to the government, with Kenny noting that:
Any incident, however, that becomes the cause for a public debate about the U.S. use of Shannon will likely add pressure on the Government [...] Against this political backdrop, U.S. missteps at Shannon could easily become campaign grist, a Fianna Fail concern that mid-level [Department of Foreign Affairs] officials have citedin informal discussions.
While Ireland’s new rules were “designed to give the Irish government more latitude to decide on allowable transits”, privately the government had wanted to maintain the “diplomatic benefits” and the “significant revenues fpr the airport and regional economy”.
The new rules had come about because of a “novel” interpretation of international law which declared all US military equipment – including trucks and ‘Humvee’ vehicles – as “munitions of war”, a matter which Kenny said he intended to query at the time.
That ruling could also have implications, Kenny believed, for the use of Ireland by Russia as a stop during transits to Venezuela.
The memo – addressed to the then-US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice - was copied to the US embassies in the other 24 European Union member states, as well as to its embassy in Baghdad and to other high-ranking US defence officials.