I had an email last week from that indefatigable organisation Shannonwatch expressing disappointment at the attitude of the Tanaiste, Labour Leader Eamon Gilmore, to the use of Shannon airport by the CIA for ‘rendering’ kidnapped suspects to Guantanamo Bay or to CIA ‘black sites’ in the Middle East or eastern Europe for torture. It brought back memories of meeting a previous Labour Tanaiste, Michael O’Leary.
In Opposition, Mr Gilmore was among the most passionate of political leaders about the failure of the Ahern/Cowan Governments to insist on inspection of the CIA aircraft. In March 2006, he lacerated then Foreign Affairs Minister Dermot Ahern for accepting at face value US assurances that no kidnap victims were being transported through Shannon.
A few months later, Mr Gilmore sparked a minor uproar in the Dail when he drew attention to a statement from the Council of Europe saying that the European Convention on Human Rights could be breached not just by an action but through “an omission to act”. The Irish Government could be in breach of the convention, he warned.
Mr Gilmore returned to the subject again the following year, demanding to know when the Government was going to discharge its duties under human rights law and order searches of the CIA ‘planes.
Now Mr Gilmore is himself Minister for Foreign Affairs, in perfect position to implement the policy he had denounced the previous administration for failing to implement. But with the change in his status has come a change of heart.
So it was with Michael O’Leary when I met him a few weeks after he became Tanaiste in 1981. The meeting was arranged by veteran Labour stalwart and founding editor of the Sunday World Joe Kennedy for a discreet restaurant near Dublin city centre. Its purpose was to press O’Leary on the Nicky Kelly case.
Nicky was serving 12 years for a 1976 mail train robbery at Sallins which I and many others were convinced he’d had nothing to do with. In Opposition, O’Leary hadn’t declared his belief in Nicky’s innocence but had said publicly that there was cause for concern about the way he’d been convicted. I wanted to persuade him to meet a couple of cross-channel television journalists and to tell them - if needs be, off the record - that there was an issue here worth looking into.
But O’Leary told me he had now been able to check the case out and had discovered that, contrary to what both of us had believed hitherto, the conviction was on the up-and-up.
What had he discovered to change his mind? He had been given a top-level Garda briefing and let in on the facts. The key fact was that Nicky had done it after all.
What about the persuasive evidence that the confession used at the trial had been phoney, that allegedly contemporaneous garda notes had been concocted and coordinated after the investigation, and so on?
O’Leary explained that - I think I quote him verbatim - “As Tanaiste, I have to accept the word of the Garda Commissioner.”
Similarly with Mr Gilmore’s explanation of his volte face: “Specific and unique assurances have been sought, and have been received, from the US authorities that no such prisoners have been transferred through Irish territory, nor would they be without our express permission. The Government has no reason to call into question the value of the assurances received at a high level from the US authorities on this matter.”
But there is every reason for scepticism about the assurances. Wikileaks cables released last December exposed secret discussion of the flights between US embassy officials and Irish Ministers, including Dermot Ahern. Information accepted in a terrorist trial in New York had confirmed the CIA’s use of Shannon. An Amnesty report had been specific about Shannon’s role in rendition.
And anyway, Gilmore’s own statements in Opposition had called into question the high-level assurances which the previous administration had relied on. But in Government, following the example of Mr. O’Leary, Eamon Gilmore doesn’t believe he can question the value of the same assurances.
Entry into Government, then, far from enabling politicians to put their policies into practice, can limit their capacity to press for the policies they campaigned on. Bound into the machinery of State, they find that they can no longer reject the spurious truths of officialdom. The price of power comes high, and is paid for by the powerless.
Same everywhere, I suppose.
Read more from Eamonn McCann in the Journal every Tuesday