The USA’s Other Island

Editors’ Note: On April 30, Irish prime minister Bertie Ahern spoke  to the joint houses of the US CongressNext week, on May 6, he steps down from office, after sustained pressure from a corruption inquiry. His successor is to be Brian Cowen, nicknamed “BIFFO” for his superficial resemblance to the longstanding stereotype of the “Big Ignorant Fecker from [county] Offaly”.  In this extract from Hammered by the Irish: How the Pitstop Ploughshares disabled a U.S. war-plane with Ireland’s Blessing, forthcoming from Counterpunch Books, HARRY BROWNE looks at the two men and the positions they adopted during the build-up to the Iraq war.   AC / JSC.

It is not with any great faith in the integrity of politicians elsewhere in the world that Irish people tend to regard their own leaders as among the slipperiest characters ever to put on a suit. The judgment is not necessarily applied retrospectively through the history of the State that gained partial independence from Britain in 1921, then declared itself a fully independent Republic in 1949 (leaving the six counties of Northern Ireland under British rule). Indeed the first generations of freedom-fighters-turned-government-ministers are seen as men of probity, by and large, whatever their other qualities. The late 20th century, however, saw the rise of a comfortable and corrupt set of politicians whose self-evident venality was actually supposed to be part of their post-colonial charm.

Foremost was Charles Haughey, whose many political twists and turns and strokes of “genius” (Teddy Kennedy’s word for him) were eclipsed, at least in contemporary Irish eyes, by the gradual exposure, after his retirement in 1992, of the tens of millions of pounds in ‘donations’ he solicited from businessmen to maintain a patrician lifestyle, complete with Georgian country mansion, horses, boats and ownership of a sizeable and scenic island off the coast of the Dingle peninsula in County Kerry – even while Ireland continued to languish on Europe’s impoverished fringe. While he was in power, supporters often spoke of Haughey with a wink and the cliché “better the devil you know…”, but few knew then just how thorough his personal corruption had become by his final years in office.

In 1997, the office of prime minister (‘Taoiseach’, in the Irish language) was assumed by Haughey’s protégé, Bertie Ahern. An accountant of humble origins, Ahern’s ‘ordinary’ demeanor and almost Bushily error-prone speech patterns, in a working-class Dublin accent, scarcely masked his political skills, including an evasiveness that frustrated opponents and made him an exceptionally successful negotiator. Ahern’s personal style was precisely the opposite of Haughey’s extravagance – though there eventually were to be public questions about Ahern’s own finances, and both his marriage and subsequent long relationship were to suffer public breakdowns. (Haughey had simply conducted widely discussed extramarital affairs.) Haughey had called Ahern “the most ruthless and cunning of them all”, but unlike Haughey’s, Ahern’s ruthlessness seemed to be in pursuit of power, pure and simple, not personal pleasure and luxury.

By 2002, Ahern was governing one of the world’s more successful economies. The ‘Celtic Tiger’ had various causes, but it is probably best understood as a consequence of the ‘friendly’ (i.e. profitable) relationship with the US and multinational business. Attractive tax policies, Bill Clinton’s personal interest in the Irish ‘peace process’ and the American hi-tech and pharmaceutical booms of the 1990s helped establish Ireland as an ideal offshore location for US business: by 2002 nearly a quarter of US investment into the European Union was coming to Ireland. With just four million people, the Republic of Ireland is too small and its Tiger is too complex and contingent (just what would have happened without Viagra in Cork and/or Pentium chips in Kildare?) for it to be held up as a successful model of one form or another of economic development, though that doesn’t stop the pundits and politicians of different stripes from citing it either as the model case of low-tax neoliberalism or of government-directed social partnership.

Ahern himself occasionally calls himself a ‘socialist’ – prompting splutters of disbelief across the political spectrum, though it’s a clear indication he knows the word still resonates more positively with the populace than it does with the political and media elite. His own public analysis of the Celtic Tiger tended to credit social partnership, not least because he himself has proven so adept at brokering national agreements that govern large sections of the waged economy, with employer and trade-union involvement. This was in keeping with the historic populism of his party, Fianna Fail, tempered in government for most of the recent past by its coalition with the much smaller, right-wing Progressive Democrat (PD) party, who tended to credit neoliberalism, and more specifically themselves, for the historic achievement of a prosperous Ireland.

For all the vaguely leftish populism, however, Ahern was not going to look the American (Trojan?) gift horse in the mouth. Moreover, even after the euphorically warm relations with Bill Clinton had faded from significance – the legendary late Saint Patrick’s Night sing-songs in the White House replaced by an annual sober handshake with the dry-drunk Dubya – he and others in the Fianna Fail party would suggest that the relationship with US capital was about more than money, that a supportive political friendship with the United States was in the interest of Irish prosperity. (The PDs and the largest opposition party, Fine Gael, unhampered by Fianna Fail’s residual populism and unease with imperialism, would express this view rather more directly.)

Ahern’s foreign minister was his Fianna Fail party colleague, Brian Cowen, the man most likely to succeed him as Taoiseach. If Ahern had raised political evasiveness and ambiguity to a fine art, then Cowen was at least a master craftsman. Cowen’s main failing – apart from looks, still not regarded as a crippling disability in Irish politics – was his incapacity to indicate convincingly that he believed politics should have anything at all to do with the great unwashed. (His elitism is commonplace; its transparency less so, and only his own down-home, rough rural manner protected him from political damage.) Cowen’s every soporific public uttering – muttering, really – carried an implicit message: “leave it to the professionals.” Colleagues and journalists encouraged Cowen’s arrogance by constantly assuring him, in public and private, that he was the most intelligent and able of all government ministers, that the nation’s interests were indeed safe in his hands, that he owed no one any explanations.

These were the shifty characters in charge of Irish foreign policy as the United States suffered the atrocity of the September 11th attacks, then launched the ‘War on Terror’. Ireland held a seat on the United Nations Security Council in late 2001 and 2002, and was indeed in the (rotating) presidency in September 2001. Ahern and, especially, Cowen, were four-square behind the US in this period, with Cowen, in early October 2001, praising the Bush administration for its “restraint” in response to 9/11. (That is to say, the Americans had merely locked and loaded, and not yet opened fire on the people of Afghanistan.)

And that’s where Shannon comes in. The airport in the west of Ireland, about 100 miles from Dublin, is a remarkably convenient spot for air travellers. To see for yourself, grab a globe and a piece of string and stretch the string from North America to various points in central and eastern Europe, the Middle East and southwest Asia, then look where the middle of the string ‘flies’ over. Back in Cold War days it was commonplace to see Aeroflot planes, and less often Soviet military ones, stopping in Shannon en route to and from Cuba, even during major East-West crises. Credible rumour had it that would-be defectors at Shannon were told in no uncertain terms that they weren’t welcome in Ireland, and manhandled back on to craft. It was nothing personal, or even political; it was strictly business.

The War on Terror, however, was elevating a certain sort of business to unprecedented levels. As early as 2002 there were suspicions that Shannon might be involved in shipping prisoners to Guantanamo; certainly CIA flights stopped there in the course of ‘extraordinary rendition’ missions, though it is not known if they carried prisoners into and through Ireland. What was beyond dispute was that US troops were passing through Shannon in large and increasing numbers: the famed airport lounges where the creamy whiskey-laced drink known as ‘Irish coffee’ had been invented a half-century earlier were filling up with soldiers in desert fatigues. Most of the troops were on civilian charter flights, but many military aircraft were also refuelling at the airport. A few horrified locals got out their binoculars and, despite police harassment, began to document the conversion of this civilian airport into a virtual military base: their reports began to appear regularly on the Irish Indymedia website. A grassroots campaign on Shannon swelled in the course of late 2002, as further US war-making looked inevitable.

The Irish government went into slip-sliding mode. In autumn 2002, facing parliamentary questions about what was happening at Shannon, foreign-minister Cowen adopted his typical muttering don’t-be-worrying, business-as-usual posture. “There has not been any significant change in the pattern of overflights and landings by foreign military aircraft in recent months,” he insisted. It was reminiscent of Richard Pryor’s joke about the plea of a man caught by his wife in flagrante: “Who you gonna believe, me or your own lyin’ eyes?”

HARRY BROWNE lectures at Dublin Institute of Technology and writes for Village magazine. He can be reached at:







Harry Browne lectures in Dublin Institute of Technology and is the author of The Frontman: Bono (In the Name of Power)., Twitter @harrybrowne