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Monday 22 January 2018

US diplomats have inside track on Irish politicians

The release of Hillary Clinton’s emails has opened up a treasure trove of diplomatic cables held by the US State Department, writes Ronald Quinlan

EMAILS: Hillary Clinton’s advisers kept her informed
EMAILS: Hillary Clinton’s advisers kept her informed
Ronald Quinlan

Ronald Quinlan

When the New York Times revealed last March that Hillary Clinton had set up a private email address prior to being sworn in as US Secretary of State, which she then used for the four years she held the office, it provoked alarm with questions as to whether she had breached “federal requirements”.

Last May, a federal judge ordered government officials to inspect and to release the estimated 30,490 communications relevant to Mrs Clinton’s former duties which were held on the email server she had established at her upstate New York home in 2009.

Included in the emails released to date are many of the contacts Mrs Clinton had with her officials in relation to the 2012 terror attacks on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya which left four Americans dead. Given the seriousness of that and other issues dealt with in the emails, the potential consequences for Clinton’s candidacy for the US presidency are serious.

However, the release of the presidential hopeful and former First Lady’s communications also shine a light on the role she played as US Secretary of State in 2009 and 2010 in Northern Ireland as politicians sought to broker an agreement on power sharing.

In seeking to understand the interplay between the unionist and nationalist sides, the emails show how Clinton relied heavily on her close confidant, Sidney Blumenthal, a former assistant and senior advisor to her husband, President Bill Clinton.

She also valued the advice of Environment Minister Alan Kelly’s brother, Declan, whom she appointed to the role of economic envoy to Northern Ireland in August 2009. Judging by the emails released by the US State Department, Mrs Clinton appears to have been enthused at the prospect of sending Kelly to Northern Ireland on her behalf.

Indeed, in an email to her chief of staff, Cheryl Mills on August 28, 2009, she cheered official confirmation of his appointment, saying: “Yeah! Is he now official? Can I call him? Can I ask him to start?”

Blumenthal’s counsel meanwhile came to the fore some months later with the eruption of the scandal involving Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson’s wife, Iris following the revelation of her affair with the 19-year-old Kirk Camberley. January 9, 2010 saw Blumenthal forwarding an article to Mrs Clinton from that day’s Independent newspaper headlined ‘The first Lady, her young lover, and a scandal that could hand power to Sinn Fein’, with his read on how the story could yet become a “full blown crisis”.

Within weeks, the controversy had subsided sufficiently to allow talks on power sharing in the North to progress. Emails from January 26, 2010 show Mrs Clinton being asked to make a series of phone calls to Peter Robinson, Martin McGuinness and others to advance negotiations.

Blumenthal emailed Mrs Clinton again in relation to Northern Ireland on March 9, 2010, this time to let her know that she featured at the “top” of a story on Northern Ireland headlined ‘Stormont votes to take over Northern Ireland policing powers’.

State Department documents show how Mrs Clinton had been in phone contact with Northern Ireland first minister Peter Robinson, deputy first minister Martin McGuinness and Ulster Unionist leader Sir Reg Empey in the period leading up to the March 9 vote. Background documents relating to those calls give an insight into the US State Department’s information on the Northern politicians’ views of each other’s position.

While Mr Robinson said failure by the UUP to support the deal would lead to his resignation as first minister and an election, he believed the DUP would “hammer” Empey’s party in such a scenario. The UUP meanwhile believed it would make gains in an election against a “scandal-ridden and weakened DUP”. Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness said he believed both unionist parties were miscalculating.

The US government’s interest in the political affairs of the Irish State have never been limited to bringing peace to Northern Ireland.

An examination by the Sunday Independent of the diplomatic cables sent from the US embassy in Dublin to Washington show the Americans’ interest in a range of issues including the travails of former Taoiseach Brian Cowen as the Irish economy imploded in late 2008, the two referendums on the Lisbon Treaty and the role in both of its most vocal opponent, businessman Declan Ganley.

In a cable sent in November 2008 and just months into Cowen’s tenure as Taoiseach, US embassy officials here noted his government had “suffered a surge of bad news” and that “challenges to his leadership continue to beleaguer him”. US diplomats said he would “need to navigate a careful tack in coming weeks to avoid further erosion of his authority and credibility”.

A visit by the then US Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte to Ireland that same month prompted his officials to prepare a list of ‘possible Qs and As’ for an appearance at Trinity College.

Included in the questions being anticipated was one in relation to Declan Ganley and his company Rivada’s contracts with the US government, and whether this had any connection to his stewardship of the Libertas campaign against the Lisbon Treaty.

The US State Department’s briefing note was prescient. The official transcript of the November 17, 2008 Trinity College Q & A session shows that Mr Ganley featured in the first question. The questioner asked: “In the run-up to what may turn out to be a second Lisbon referendum the provenance of a particular political group here led by Declan Ganley called Libertas, it has been alleged repeatedly that Declan Ganley and/or his Libertas group received support from the US  government. Has the government or the Bush administration provided any support either financial, moral or otherwise to Declan Ganley and the Libertas movement? I think it would be useful if we could clarify that.”

Mr Negroponte said he had it “on very good authority” that there was no connection or support for Mr Ganley’s opposition to the Lisbon Treaty coming from the US government.

Notwithstanding that response, a cable from February 2008 reveals how Mr Ganley and his executive assistant, Stephen Nolan met with the then US ambassador Tom Foley on February 19 “to urge him to press Congress not to set the date” for the address by then Taoiseach Bertie Ahern to both houses of Congress prior to the date of the Lisbon referendum. Mr Ganley feared Ahern would use “the inevitable bounce in popularity” from his appearance to sway voters.

Sunday Independent

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