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Did he or did he not? Gilmore dispute enters twilight zone

THERE has been a new twist in the controversy involving Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore and the apparent conflict between what he said in private and what he said in public. While the matter remains unresolved, the possibility has been raised that Mr Gilmore was wronged, and that the event widely remarked upon (in this newspaper and elsewhere) never took place.

Or, perhaps it did. In which case, the controversy is verging into Twilight Zone territory.

It began when the Irish Independent published a number of stories based on US embassy cables released by Wikileaks. One of the cables, sent on July 23, 2008, concerned a visit to Ireland by Nicolas Sarkozy, in which he discussed with Taoiseach Brian Cowen the failed Lisbon Treaty referendum. The cable was sent by US Ambassador Thomas Foley, to the State Department in Washington. In the course of the cable, reference was made to short separate meetings Sarkozy had with Enda Kenny and Eamon Gilmore.

The controversial cable said that, "Gilmore, who has led calls against a second referendum, has told the embassy separately that he fully expects, and would support, holding a second referendum in 2009. He explained his public posture of opposition to a second referendum as 'politically necessary' for the time being."

The Sunday following this publication, the Soapbox column in this newspaper published the statements Mr Gilmore made opposing a second referendum and contrasted them with the remarks quoted in the Wikileaks cable. We commented that this shredded Mr Gilmore's credibility.

The following day, a reader in Kildare copied the article by email to a local TD, Labour chief whip Emmet Stagg, with a short note that asked: "How can one now have trust in him and the party he leads?"

Ten days later, Mr Stagg replied to his constituent, in a handwritten letter. It described Mr Gilmore as "a man of honour and of the highest integrity" who had refuted the cable's contents. Mr Stagg's letter suggested the Soapbox column was misleading. The constituent forwarded a copy of the letter to me, pointing out and seeking to clear up the discrepancy.

Mr Stagg's letter to his constituent said, in part: "I spoke to Eamon about this. He told me he never met the ambassador in question to whom he is alleged to have spoken."

This is not in dispute. The US Embassy cable says that Mr Gilmore "told the embassy". While the cable is signed by Ambassador Foley, and we can take it he trusted whoever in the embassy told him of this alleged conversation, it does not suggest that Gilmore and Foley met.

Mr Stagg's letter continues: "He [Mr Gilmore] never expressed the opinion attributed to him." This states categorically that the US embassy cable contained an untruth, that someone in the embassy gave the ambassador false information -- and this was passed on to Washington.

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Mr Stagg's letter went on: "And when he refuted the contents of the Wikileaks document in the Dail, Kerrigan and others choose to ignore it."

In writing that Soapbox, I did not know that Mr Gilmore had refuted the contents of the cable in the Dail or elsewhere. On the contrary, the Soapbox column said: "Gilmore did not claim that anything in the cable was inaccurate."

Having apparently misled readers by this statement, and wishing to set the record straight, I spent some hours checking the Dail record, to find and reprint this refutation, but found none. A text search of both the Irish Independent and Irish Times archives found no reference. Electronic archives can be deceptive. I sent two emails to Mr Stagg, asking for a reference to the date of the Dail refutation, and left one message at his Dail office. As of lunchtime Saturday, he hasn't replied.

I asked the Labour press office for help on this and they attempted to find a reference to Mr Gilmore raising this matter in the Dail, but they had the same lack of success. This doesn't mean Mr Gilmore didn't refute the cable's claim in the Dail, it just means it's very hard to find. Such a refutation, if it exists, slid under the media radar with remarkable ease.

We asked the Labour Party if Mr Gilmore has complained to the US embassy that someone there invented remarks he never made. They are not aware of any such complaint.

The controversy is unresolved. Mr Gilmore is the second highest government official, at a time of national crisis. We know from Mr Stagg that Mr Gilmore denies making a statement that, if true, would damage the Government's credibility. The cable, as published by Wikileaks and widely reported here and abroad, appears to be a genuine US embassy cable -- whatever about the veracity of its contents.

The political and media establishment behave as though none of this ever happened. They neither question Mr Gilmore's conduct, nor do they defend his credibility -- apart from Mr Stagg, who at least had the guts to defend his leader in a letter to a constituent.

There's an easy way out of this. The Taoiseach, or anyone else in high office who cares about the credibility of the Government, could ensure that something along the following lines is arranged: that Mr Gilmore formally refute the cable's contents, in the Dail; that he outline in the Dail any and all contacts he has had with US diplomats, or anyone connected to them, and the substance of those contacts; specifically, that he provides the Dail with the names of any US diplomat with whom he discussed the Lisbon Treaty, if he ever did; that the US ambassador be called in and asked to explain why damaging remarks were falsely attributed to a senior Irish politician and transmitted to the Secretary of State, and by whom -- if that is the case; that the Government formally require the US State Department to contact anyone who received the cable (it seems to have been passed to US diplomats across Europe), to inform them that the Irish deputy prime minister was traduced, and to withdraw those damaging remarks.

On the other hand, Mr Gilmore's colleagues may not believe his version of the controversy, as told by Mr Stagg. If that is the case, their silence will speak for itself.

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