Category: Archive

Diplomacy at the crossroads

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

Only the day before, Shannon had been at the airport that bore her name along with her husband, Bill. They had traveled to deliver the first official U.S. greeting to the American embassy hostages just released by the Iranians.
Like countless other Americans before and since, the hostages had stopped at Shannon en route to the U.S. for a breather, an Irish coffee and a pint or two.
Elizabeth Shannon was a meticulous daily diarist and the Shannon trip was going to require a fair few words.
After her husband’s four-year stint as U.S. ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary, she would publish a book about her family’s stay in Dublin entitled “Up in the Park.” But over the tea and the paper that morning the only thing that was about to go up was Mrs. Shannon’s blood pressure.
A headline at the bottom of page one captured her eye: “Warm Irish But Dull Country.” She got through the first couple of paragraphs, placed her head in her hands and groaned. She had just laid eyes on the story that was to become known as the “Berrington Affair.”
Robin Berrington, the cultural affairs and press officer at the U.S. Embassy in Dublin, had confided his views on Ireland in a private memo to colleagues.
The memo had somehow become mixed up with an informational mailing on the newly inaugurated president, Ronald Reagan.
Ireland, Berrington wrote, was an “isolated” and “provincial” place and his time there a “disappointing assignment.” Berrington stated that he would not be sorry to leave the country, though he did qualify his criticism by praising the Irish people as being a nice bunch, though somewhat inscrutable despite their surface charm.
Overall, though, Berrington gave his diplomatic post a low rating. Ireland was “small potatoes” compared to other European countries.
Smaller perhaps, but why so dull?
The country was friendly toward the United States, and of potentially strategic importance in the event of a war despite its stated neutrality. It was socially lively, culturally rich and there was a war going on just a few miles up the road from Dublin that involved protagonists who all counted for something in the U.S. sphere of influence.
Work, interest, and fun enough for even the most jaded diplomat? Seemingly not.
One reason for the sense of frustration that likely affected more U.S. diplomats than just Berrington over the years was the fact that the Dublin embassy, though on the island of Ireland, had virtually no role in attempting to solve the problems caused by partition of the island and the negative effects this could have on Anglo-Irish, Anglo-U.S. and Irish-U.S. relations.
Indeed, at the time the Berrington affair broke, the idea of the Dublin embassy cutting across the bows of its London equivalent was anathema to Washington and had been since the outbreak of the troubles.
The view that Northern Ireland was not directly an issue for the U.S. was made plain to the Republic’s foreign minister (and later president), Patrick Hillery, when he traveled to the U.S. following Bloody Sunday in January 1972.
Hillery got short shrift from U.S. Secretary of State William Rogers when the two met to discuss the escalating crisis. When asked by a reporter about a possible U.S. diplomatic intervention after the meeting, Rogers described the idea as “outrageous.”
For a country’s chief diplomat to dismiss diplomacy in such a fashion was stunning to say the least. But a diplomatic advance was at least partly behind Rogers’s broadside against his own political art.
As Sean Cronin noted in his book “Washington’s Irish Policy, 1916-1986,” the Rogers response to Hillery’s plea for U.S. intervention was stymied because the British ambassador to the U.S., Lord Cromer, had “got to [Rogers] first.”

The British component
It was not the first time that Ireland played second fiddle to its larger neighbor. Indeed, it is impossible to separate the history of U.S. diplomacy to Ireland from that of U.S. relations with Britain.
The first U.S. ambassador with Ireland formally listed as part of his diplomatic brief was John Quincy Adams. Though not the first U.S. plenipotentiary to London, the future president presented his credentials on June 8, 1815 to “the court of the Prince Regent of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.”
The first U.S. envoy to the newly formed Irish Free State was Frederick Sterling, a Texan appointed in 1927 and the only one of the 25 ambassadors to the Free State or Republic up to and including Richard Egan who was a professional foreign service officer.
All the rest have been political, or as the State Department puts it, “non-career” appointees. Few of the U.S. ambassadors to Ireland in the 20th century made the household-name category. A couple, William Howard Taft III, who served in the 1950s, and Jean Kennedy Smith, in the ’90s, did carry famous political names with them across the Atlantic.
But history has reserved a quieter place for the likes of W.W. McDowell, Alvin Mansfield Owsley and Edward Stockdale.
Some, though, did have a lot of work on their hands and concerns enough to keep them awake at night. David Gray, who famously locked horns with Taoiseach Eamon de Valera more than once over World War II Irish neutrality, once told a visitor to the U.S. Embassy in “Emergency” Dublin that if the Nazis invaded the Free State, he was ready to stand at the embassy gate with a rifle in his hand and resist for as long as he stayed alive.
Gray didn’t have to live up to his pledge, but his term in Ireland — it was one of the longest of any U.S. ambassador, lasting as it did from 1940-47 — was one of the more lively and contentious. So acrimonious did the Gray-de Valera relationship become that de Valera tried to have Gray recalled to Washington. He failed, and it would take some years after Gray’s eventual departure before diplomatic relations between Ireland and U.S. evolved into the warm and fuzzy variety.
The Northern Troubles of the 1970s might have prompted William Rogers to put up a defensive wall, but the influence of Irish America in U.S. diplomacy would eventually prove at least a partial counterweight.
John Moore, who served from 1969-75, was politically well connected in Washington, D.C. His brother Richard, who followed him to Phoenix Park at the end of the 1980s, worked in the Nixon administration.
The Moores also had a potent Irish nationalist lineage. Their grandfather worked for Charles Stewart Parnell and land reformer Michael Davitt, while their father was secretary of John Devoy’s Friends of Irish Freedom.
John Moore is credited with gradually persuading Washington that it had a role in solving the Troubles and this sowed the seeds for more active participation in the search for a settlement on the part of both the Carter and Regan administrations.
Still, Moore’s knowledge and involvement only served to play up the inconsistency of U.S. ambassadorial appointments to Dublin. No U.S. ambassador would be sent to London without being first singled out for both knowledge of and loyalty to the special relationship between the U.S. and Britain.
The same could not be said for Ireland. John Moore was followed by a series of ambassadors who were clearly less inclined, or able, to plunge decisively into the Northern conundrum while wielding the kind of clout that would make Washington sit up and take notice.
In his book “Daring Diplomacy,” Conor O’Clery described how the Dublin posting became something of a “booby prize” even during the years when peace in the North suddenly seemed possible.
“In October 1985,” O’Clery wrote, “Ronald Reagan made Margaret Heckler ambassador to Ireland when he wanted to move her from Secretary of Health and Human Services after a highly publicized divorce.”
Heckler, famous for her smile, at least broke the sex barrier in becoming the first woman ambassador to Dublin.
William Fitzgerald, president George Bush’s pick for Dublin in 1992, broke the octogenarian barrier and caused uproar at his Senate confirmation hearings when he mixed up unionists and nationalists and insisted on briefing senators on a referendum in Ireland that had not even taken place.
Small potatoes, it seemed, had become mere seedlings. But all was about to change, and quite dramatically.
Ambassador Fitzgerald presided over the embassy for the first few months of the Clinton administration, but an early successor was inevitable. Jean Kennedy Smith was something of a surprise choice but one that immediately led to speculation that hers would be an exceptionally political, as opposed to purely diplomatic, tenure at the embassy.

Going North
Kennedy Smith brought with her a newly sketched mission statement that was noticeably more White House than State Department. Indeed, her family political connections, top of them being that to her brother, Sen. Edward Kennedy, resulted in Kennedy Smith attaining a diplomatic profile that would set her at odds with both the State Department and the U.S. ambassador to London.
Other ambassadors had traveled north of the border. Margaret Heckler had made some trips, as had Richard Moore. But they were low-key fact-finding affairs.
The North was London embassy turf and too much attention to cross-border forays from the Dublin embassy caused unease at the State Department.
Bill Shannon had made one visit during which he had met with several leading North politicians. Elizabeth Shannon would later reveal that Shannon was told by the State Department not to cross the border a second time. He obeyed the instruction.
Kennedy Smith was harder to stop. President Clinton wanted her to cross the border and so did brother Ted.
The new ambassador did not confine herself to discreet meetings, however. She created quite a furor at one point when she turned up in a non-jury Diplock court.
The U.S. Embassy in London was furious and this anger would be later reflected in the memoirs of U.S. ambassador to Britain at the time, Raymond Seitz. Seitz described Kennedy Smith an “ardent apologist” for the IRA.
This view was widely rejected. Kennedy Smith’s varied activities in Ireland were in accordance with evolving White House plans. That her actions made the State Department and the London embassy uncomfortable was beside the point.
Kennedy Smith would continue to be a diplomatic torch bearer for the Clinton administration until her departure from Dublin in September 1998.
Two years after her departure she would be formally reprimanded by Secretary of State Warren Christopher. This incident stemmed from an internal rift between Kennedy Smith and two career diplomats in the Dublin embassy over the granting of a visa to Gerry Adams.
One way or another, Kennedy Smith had made her mark on a job that many believed was in need of a shot in the arm.
Her successor, former Wyoming Gov. Mike Sullivan, continued the now relatively regular habit of crossing the border. At one point, Sullivan, who is widely praised to this day by Irish diplomats for his political savvy, broke ground by making a joint appearance in the North with the then U.S. ambassador to London, Philip Lader.
Sullivan recently said he considered his trips across the border more than worthwhile.
“I felt I was making a contribution to cross-border efforts,” he said.
Sullivan believes that the nature of U.S. diplomacy has changed in the context of Northern Ireland and its peace process.
“Even though the North is still under the jurisdiction of the London embassy, diplomatic efforts can expand to cross-border efforts without presuming on the London embassy,” he said.
Sullivan described his time in Ireland as a tremendous experience and wonderful privilege.
“I had high expectations and all were exceeded,” he said. “The issues and responsibilities were sufficiently challenging to be satisfying and, of course, a large part of the job was trying to see through the implementation of the Good Friday agreement.
“I enjoyed the responsibilities that came with working with the governments and in the North trying to break down barriers,” Sullivan said.
Sullivan believes that his tenure in Dublin was made easier by the fact that he was a relatively unknown figure to begin with. He said he feels a certain sympathy for his predecessor in this regard.
“It was harder for her by the simple reason of being a Kennedy,” he said.
Sullivan said that he found the working relationship between the Dublin and London embassies to be more “accommodating” than in the past because of progress in the peace process.
Sullivan is of the view that his appearance in the North with Ambassador Lader should be a marker for the future.
“I would agree with the idea of joint ambassadorial appearances in the North,” he said. “It’s important for the Dublin and London embassies to work together.”
And yet, the indications are that the recent decision by Sullivan’s successor, Richard Egan, to quit the Dublin embassy was at least in part due to his lack of a meaningful role in the still evolving peace process. It was also reportedly due in large part to the fact that he and his wife, Maureen, missed seeing their grandchildren in Massachusetts.
Egan, according to a source familiar with the outgoing ambassador’s tenure in Ireland, also found it more difficult to promote U.S.-Irish business ties as a diplomat than he had as a business executive.
“He thought he could help business, but business likes to do its own thing independent of government, and he [Egan] was now representing a government,” the source said.
The view of Sullivan’s time in Ireland, from the Irish side, is highly positive.
But while Sullivan was widely respected and enjoyed broad access on both side of the border, one veteran observer of U.S. diplomacy said that this access did not quite match that of Jean Kennedy Smith.
“Jean Kennedy Smith had her own public relations system — and she had Teddy,” the observer noted.
Being the U.S. ambassador to Ireland might be a great honor, but it is also a job that, even now, does not apparently guarantee a satisfying day’s work every day of the week.
To some extent, satisfaction in the Dublin job depends on the attitude, personal commitment, indeed passions, and back-home political connections of the incumbent. But Washington invariably has the final say over how freely the ambassador may roam.
The degree of that freedom fluctuates. Egan’s successor will find out soon enough whether being “Up in the Park” is also largely a matter of being confined to it in terms of his or her diplomatic brief.

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