2011-01-20 Cablegate, Ireland, and extraordinary rendition

Cablegate reinforces suspicions of Irish government complicity in US rendition: US diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks are gradually adding to a picture wherein the government of Ireland ignored public opposition to suspected US rendition flights through its territory, and looked for ways to co-operate with alleged US abuses while avoiding liability and political fallout.

What is the context?

The Shannon airport has a history of use as a military stopover point for foreign militaries. Post-9/11, the US military had been allowed to use Shannon as a conduit for "War on Terror" flights involving munitions, supplies, and the transport of vehicles and troops to Afghanistan and Iraq. This move was unpopular since the status of the Iraq war under international law was controversial, and the Shannon stopover was perceived by the Irish anti-war community as a violation of the principle of Irish neutrality.

A High Court challenge by an Irish ex-soldier in Horgan v. An Taoiseach on the grounds that the Shannon stopover was unconstitutional, pursuant to an Irish constitutional commitment (Art. 28.1) to neutrality, was rejected by Kearns J. on the basis that it was not for the judiciary to determine the degree to which the Shannon stopover constituted "participation" in the Iraq war.

The stopover was the subject of numerous activist campaigns and High Court cases. During the Iraq war, opposition to the Shannon stopover was at times as high as 58 per cent.

On December 6, 2005, BBC's Newsnight covered the possibility that Shannon was being used for CIA extraordinary rendition flights, whereby individuals were abducted from their home countries without legal or judicial oversight and flown to US-controlled sites within which their interrogation and extralegal incarceration could be facilitated more effectively. It was speculated that the US was outsourcing the tortuous interrogation of its detainees to client states that were not signatories to human-rights treaties.

What has Cablegate been revealing?

The role of the Irish government in the US use of Shannon is broadly outlined in three diplomatic cables from the Dublin embassy, released by WikiLeaks.

2010-11-30: A CONFIDENTIAL cable, 06DUBLIN1020 provides a brief on the Shannon situation to the State Department, and openly discusses the support of the Irish government for military stopovers in Shannon, interpreting new limitations on the use of Shannon by the US military more as an appeasement of public opinion in the face of a general election than as genuine concern for the abuse of Shannon airport.


For segments of the Irish public, however, the visibility of U.S. troops at Shannon has made the airport a symbol of Irish complicity in perceived U.S. wrongdoing in the Gulf/Middle East...In late 2005/early 2006, EU-wide debate on extraordinary renditions similarly galvanized this lobby, and the Irish public generally, to question U.S. military access to the airport... The Irish Government consistently has acted to ensure continued U.S. military transits at Shannon in the face of public criticism... Notwithstanding its general support for U.S. interests, the Irish Government has more recently begun to place limits on certain forms of U.S. transits at Shannon... The Irish public's overwhelming opposition to Israeli military actions in Lebanon has exacerbated the governing Fianna Fail party's sensitivity to public criticism ahead of Ireland's May 2007 general elections. The major opposition party, Fine Gael, supports continued U.S. military use of Shannon, but the Labour Party and the Green Party, Fine Gael's opposition partners, favor a review, if not reversal, of Irish policy on U.S. transits. Against this political backdrop, U.S. missteps at Shannon could easily become campaign grist, a Fianna Fail concern that mid-level DFA officials have cited in informal discussions with Post... We suspect that the Government aims with tese new constraints to dampen public criticism ahead of the 2007 general elections[.]

2010-11-30: A CONFIDENTIAL cable, 07DUBLIN916 reports a meeting with (then) Irish Foreign Minister Dermot Ahern, and relates approvingly his "tamping down" of public reaction to a report by the Irish Human Rights Commission on Extraordinary Rendition. The report had demanded that the Irish government inspect flights to ensure Extraordinary Rendition was not occurring, a demand that Ahern had unequivocally rejected - a move that drew the censure of the European Parliament. 07DUBLIN916 reveals that Ahern had assured the public that rendition was not occurring, but was apparently reasonably certain that several renditions had in fact occurred. Ahern requested of the Ambassador a token inspection agreement, so as to provide political cover, lest the renditions become public knowledge.


Ambassador Foley thanked Ahern for his staunch rejection of the Irish Human Rights Commission's (IHRC) demand that the Irish Government inspect aircraft landing in Ireland that are alleged to have been involved in so-called extraordinary rendition flights (Ref B)...Ahern noted that he had "put his neck on the chopping block" and would pay a severe political price if it ever turned out that rendition flights had entered Ireland or if one was discovered in the future. He stated that he "could use a little more information" about the flights, musing that it might not be a bad idea to allow the random inspection of a few planes to proceed, which would provide cover if a rendition flight ever surfaced. He seemed quite convinced that at least three flights involving renditions had refueled at Shannon Airport before or after conducting renditions elsewhere... While Ahern's public stance on extraordinary renditions is rock-solid, his musings during the meeting seemed less assured. This was the only issue during the meeting that agitated him; he spent considerable time dwelling on it. Ahern seemed to be fishing for renewed assurances from the ambassador that no rendition flights have transited Ireland, or would transit in the future.

2011-01-13: A SECRET and partially redacted cable, 04DUBLIN1739, reinforces the impression given in 07DUBLIN916 that throughout the Iraq War the Government of Ireland adopted a public stance of certainty that no rendition flights were occurring through Shannon, but privately suspected that they were occurring. It reveals that the primary worry of Irish government officials pertaining to rendition flights was not the prevention of internationally prohibited offenses against human beings, but the avoidance of political and legal liability. The Irish official, whose name was redacted, is primarily concerned that allowing rendition flights might constitute a criminal violation of Ireland's international treaty obligations, under treaties such as the United Nations Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel Human and Degrading Punishment, which besides forbidding torture, forbids also the neglect to intervene, and the refoulement of individuals to states where they might be subject to torture. The official scrupulously avoids asking whether rendition flights are occurring, since with that knowledge deniability would no longer be plausible. The ambassador diplomatically neglects to confirm, in return.


DCM met with XXXXXXXXXXXX issues surrounding U.S. use of Shannon airport. XXXXXXXXXXXX noted that while there always has been an element of Irish society that objects to the U.S. military’s use of Shannon, the government feels increasingly under pressure. On a weekly basis, members of parliament question the ministers...The political problem is that the government’s defense of Shannon rests heavily on friendship with the U.S. and the Irish government saying it relies on the “good faith” of the USG... He cautioned that if it were ever to be discovered that the U.S. was not good on its word or had transported prisoners through Shannon in the context of the war on terrorism, there would be enormous political pressure on the government. As for the legal issue, he said that were a plane to include Shannon in an itinerary that also included transporting prisoners, GOI lawyers might be forced to conclude that the GOI itself was in violation of torture conventions...The DCM told XXXXXXXXXXXX that the USG would be in no position to respond to the detailed questions asked about particular planes, such as the Gulfstream jet, but stood by its commitment to abide by Irish law, consult with the Irish and avoid actions that would bring embarrassment to the Irish government... XXXXXXXXXXXX confirmed that there is no/no change pending to Irish policy allowing U.S. use of Shannon, but reiterated that some ministers feel they are going out on a limb defending U.S. use of Shannon and that the GOI is counting on the fact that the word of the USG is good and that the U.S. has not and will not transfer prisoners through Shannon or engage in any other activity that would place the government in legal or political difficulty. He said that the government consistently says the same thing and that this must not be shown later “to have holes in it.” He also said it is critical that no “blue water” be found between statements that Irish and U.S. officials make.

The revelations in Cablegate appear to have vindicated the fears of the Irish anti-war community, and have galvanized parliamentary support for strengthening the judiciary's competency in the prevention of abuses. Irish Labour spokesperson for Foreign Affairs, Michael D Higgins, has urged renewed support for his 2008 Private Members Bill, the Air Navigation and Transport (Prevention of Extraordinary Rendition) Bill, which would render explicit Irish obligations under international law. Coverage of Higgins' statement can be consulted here.

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