Thursday 14 December 2017

'Diplomatic flurry' over President Michael D's glowing Castro tribute

Direction: President Michael D Higgins paid tribute to Castro, causing huge confusion in Irish embassies on how they should react Photo: REUTERS/Oswaldo Rivas
Direction: President Michael D Higgins paid tribute to Castro, causing huge confusion in Irish embassies on how they should react Photo: REUTERS/Oswaldo Rivas
Wayne O'Connor

Wayne O'Connor

The death of Fidel Castro last November caused a diplomatic flurry in Irish embassies around the world as ambassadors sought urgent direction on how to react.

The confusion arose after President Michael D Higgins's glowing tribute to Castro differed sharply from the Government's more nuanced line on the Cuban leader's passing.

President Michael D Higgins Photo: Collins Dublin, Gareth Chaney
President Michael D Higgins Photo: Collins Dublin, Gareth Chaney

Internal correspondence shows Ireland's diplomats overseas were unsure how they were to react publicly to Castro's death. In the aftermath, many sought both permission to sign books of condolence and advice from Government.

Briefing notes prepared for Taoiseach Enda Kenny after the Cuban leader's death encouraged him to refer to Castro as a "political giant" and a "significant figure". However, he was also told to mention Cuba's human rights record under Castro.

"Ireland has consistently made clear our concern about the restriction of freedoms and respect for human rights in Cuba," said the note prepared for Kenny.

"We cannot ignore Cuba's troubling record on issues such as respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, including freedom of speech."

Amnesty International has questioned the repression of basic freedoms during Castro's time as Cuban prime minister and president.

At the time of Castro's death, President Higgins said: "Having survived some 600 attempts on his life, Fidel Castro, known to his peers in Cuba as 'El Comandante', became one of the longest-serving heads of state in the world, guiding the country through a remarkable process of social and political change, advocating a development path that was unique and determinedly independent.

"Fidel Castro will be remembered as a giant among global leaders whose view was not only one of freedom for his people but for all of the oppressed and excluded peoples on the planet."

Foreign Affairs Minister Charlie Flanagan said President Higgins was entitled to comment on Castro's death, but conceded he was not a fan of Castro's work.

"If you go back over the last 40 years, no one in Irish politics has done so much work or had such a level of association with Latin American politics than Michael D Higgins," said the minister.

However, the President's comments sparked a flurry of activity in the minister's department as Irish ambassadors got in touch to see what they should say and do to acknowledge Castro's death.

They were encouraged to take a line that would be consistent with Government.

The embassies in Slovakia and Switzerland sought guidance, while Irish diplomats in the US also raised questions.

"Grateful for a steer on whether or not we should sign the book of condolence for Fidel Castro here in the United States, especially in the context of the US embargo," wrote Hilary Reilly from the Irish Embassy in Washington.

Sunday Independent

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