Friday, December 29, 2006

1976 in the Republic

The Irish government's secret papers from 1976 are also released today and in terms of Northern Ireland issues, function as companions to the newly released British papers. As with the British papers, there are no major revelations but a few points of interest nonetheless; the Irish Times (subs. req'd) goes into some detail.

One little row arose when the UK Foreign Office refused to write the letter of accreditation of their new ambassador to "The President of Ireland"; their policy then was to avoid any usages which would imply that the Dublin government had jurisdiction over the entire island. Since then, it's the Dublin government that has gotten increasingly sloppy in this regard, allowing "Ireland" to be used with reference to the 26 counties. A door that was opened by Eamon DeValera in 1937, squeezed back a bit in 1949 ("Republic of Ireland"), but then the horse decisively bolted with the Good Friday Agreement.

Anyway, the British needed to appoint a new ambassador in the first place because the previous holder of the position, Christopher Ewart Biggs, was assassinated a few weeks earlier. The civil servant taking notes for then Taoiseach Liam Cosgrave on the grim news managed a sardonic note --

Bomb weighed 200 lbs - placed in a culvert 317 yards from the embassy gate - probably placed in position on morning of the murder. Culvert bombs are S. Armagh specialities.

Finally, it's worth mentioning another sore point in Dublin-London relations from that period -- a case brought to the European Court of Justice in Strasbourg by the Republic contesting the treatment of detainees in Northern Ireland. The case had dragged on for several years and came up in one of the Wilson-Cosgrave summits of that year. Some Irish civil servants wanted Dublin to drop the case given British annoyance with it, and PM Harold Wilson felt that the issues had already been dealt with --

At the summit, Wilson duly asked the Irish ministers how far they were committed to pushing the Strasbourg issue. He said that he himself felt strongly about the matter because as the leader of the opposition he had condemned the "methods of barbarism" used against detainees at the time.

He also complained that this "had made him the subject of the dirtiest cartoon he had ever experienced in his life. It had shown a British soldier going by in a coffin with Mr Wilson going in the opposite direction - saying that he could not go to the funeral because he had to go to speak to the murderers".

However the case continued and its 1978 verdict, although moot in the Northern Ireland case since the practices had ceased, set the stage for the disastrous White House "torture memo" 25 years later, with its distinction between "torture" and "inhuman and degrading treatment". Unintended consequences indeed.

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