From Washington to Warsaw, from Dublin to Damascus, from Moscow to Maputo, from London to La Paz, from Paris to Panama – the range and breath of issues covered by the WikiLeaks Ireland Cables is extraordinary.
Former Taoisigh, senior cabinet members, diplomats, drug traffickers, alleged Muslim terrorists, businessman, oil companies, Vatican insiders and kidnapped aid workers all feature in the Ireland Cache, comprising 1,903 US embassy cables and totaling an astonishing 2,398,124 words.
Over the next week we will provide our readers with a series of unprecedented insights into Ireland’s diplomatic affairs – all observed, monitored, interpreted, commented upon, appreciated and sometimes pilloried by diplomats cabling the State Department in Washington DC and other US embassies.
Roughly half the cables – dating from the Air India disaster in 1985 to the Vatican response to the Murphy Report into the sexual abuse scandal in the archdiocese of Dublin in February 2010 – originate from the US Embassy in Dublin. The rest are sourced from embassies and consulates across the globe
All are relevant, in varying degrees, to Irish domestic or foreign affairs.
Most of the cables are straightforward diplomatic dispatches, the kind of updates any dutiful line manager would provide to their employer.
But others provide a startling insight into how the most powerful country in the world is keeping tabs on the rest of us – and what they really think about us behind the shroud of diplomacy.
As you would expect, the language used in the cables (which are generally extremely well written) is diplomatic.
But sometimes the mask slips a little, giving a telling insight into how the US State Department views Ireland, all set within the context of its own strategic interests.
The Ireland cables were obtained by the Irish Independent through an arrangement with whistle-blowing organisation WikiLeaks that involved no financial transaction or any monetary obligations on either side.
Our contacts with WikiLeaks were initiated – together with our sister Northern paper The Belfast Telegraph – in early March.
This was followed up by a face to face meeting with WikiLeaks founder and editor-in-chief Julian Assange at Ellingham Hall, the quaint English country mansion in the Norfolk countryside where he currently resides under house arrest under a British court order while fighting extradition to Sweden.
On November 28, 2010, five major newspapers – The Guardian, The New York Times, Der Spiegel, Le Monde and El Pais – dominated global headlines when they published a selection of cables that provided readers worldwide with what WikiLeaks described as “an unprecedented insight into US government foreign activities”.
The WikiLeaks database made available to the five newspapers comprised 251,187 cables from 280 US embassies and consulates in 180 countries across the globe.
The total word count of the entire cache was estimated to be 300 million.
We were concerned with those cables relating to Ireland. At that point just 11 cables – all originating in Dublin – had been published.
An arrangement was reached without fuss, essentially boiling down to an agreed understanding on the terms and condition of publication, including redacting, where necessary, the material and compliance with a security protocol to protect and handle the sensitive information at our disposal.
We were able to begin the long, at times infuriating but ultimately fascinating process of trawling through the entire cache of just over 1,900 cables relating to Ireland by the first week of last month.
The cables are divided into five different categories; SECRET/NOFORN (not for foreigners’ eyes); SECRET; CONFIDENTIAL/NOFORN; CONFIDENTIAL and UNCLASSIFIED.
The SECRET cables were an obvious starting point for us to begin mining. This category only covered a limited number of themes; the spread of nuclear material and military exports to countries considered unsavoury, such as Iran and Syria.
The bulk of stories the Irish Independent will publish over the next week came from the ‘confidential’ documents.
Some of these will scandalize, others will simply confirm long held opinions and prejudices about the nature of Ireland’s relationship with the US and the wider world. But almost all will provide new and telling insights into the behind-the-scenes politicking and horse trading that goes on behind the closed doors of international diplomacy.
The timing of the release of the Ireland Cables is fitting.
Coming just a week after the outpouring of pro-US sentiment that accompanied Barack Obama’s on his first visit to this country, the Irish cache gives us an unprecedented insight into the true nature of our relationship with the US.
It is clear from the cables Ireland enjoys a very ‘special relationship’ with our allies in Washington.
But this does not appear to be a relationship of equals.
In the global political arena, our own interests generally mirror that of the US, and this is vividly reflected in the Ireland Cables.
In these instances, it is arguably extremely beneficial to have the world’s most powerful political and military machine in your corner.
But on those occasions when our interests diverge, the US State Department is never shy about showing their displeasure.
Most of the time, particularly when it comes to something of strategic importance to the US, Irish governments appear unwilling to stand up to its much bigger and powerful ally
Shannon is a good example. The cables reveal several government ministers expressed reservations about claims from human rights groups that the airport was being used to transit controversial rendition missions.
But, tellingly, they never pushed the issue too hard or took any action that would threaten the economic benefits of the US military’s use of Shannon.
According to the cables, there was a high level willingness to provide detailed briefings to the Americans on delicate issues both at home and abroad.
This cosy relationship extended to a cabinet member providing detailed information on sensitive coalition negotiations, ministers promising to advance US interests at EU level and our own ambassadors briefing American officials in sensitive trouble spots around the world.
However, it is not all one-way traffic and there were occasions when our government was not prepared to toe the Washington line. For example, the embassy in Dublin furiously lobbied senior cabinet ministers in a bid to persuade a major Irish company to buy $1bn worth of products from a US corporation. But their best diplomatic efforts fell on deaf ears and the Irish company instead plumped for an EU supplier.
It is also important to stress that, while the documents are themselves genuine, it does not always mean that the analysis and gossip reported in the cables are always correct.
The authors of the diplomatic dispatches have their own agendas. They were eager to impress their masters back in Washington, and also sometimes to promote their own views.
Sometimes they just wanted to demonstrate they knew what was going on.
By its very nature, field reporting to Washington is often candid and based on incomplete information. It is not an expression of policy, nor does it always shape final policy decisions.
These American diplomats have been trained to listen, probe and prod, milk sources, report and write – sometimes under witty and elegant headlines (one cable relating to the deepening fiscal crisis here was titled: ‘The Irish Economy – As Black as the Guinness’).
Almost all of the time, they view Irish men, women and women simply through the reflected mirror of US strategic interests and policy.
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Only in tomorrow's Irish Independent: What the US really thought of our politicians