Shannon permission to US aircraft represents major policy shift

The persistent claim by government ministers that there has been no change of policy in facilitating America's war in Iraq by the use of Shannon as a stop-over from US military aircraft and personnel is simply not true. This government has altered fundamentally policy on the use of Irish territory by foreign military. The change took place first when Afghanistan was attacked by US forces following 11 September 2001.

Contrast what is now happening with the following exchanges in the Dáil on 23 October 1983. Prionsias de Rossa asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Peter Barry, about the use of Shannon airport as a transit point for US military personnel being transported between West Germany and north America. Patrick Cooney, the former Minister for Justice and then Minister for Posts and Telegraphs replied to the question on behalf of Peter Barry. He said requests for foreign military overflights and landings are considered in the light of long standing procedures and criteria. These included:

• That clearance should be consistent with the government's foreign policy, as expressed in Dáil Éireann, in the United Nations and elsewhere;

• That the overflight or military landing must not be an integral part of training manoeuvres by foreign military aircraft; likewise, clearance is not granted where a troop-carrying aircraft is en route to military exercises;

• That clearance be in no way prejudicial to the security or safety of the State.

The late Mr Brian Lenihan, then Fianna Fáil opposition spokesman on Foreign Affairs, agreed.

When Minister for Foreign Affairs himself on 2 May 1989, Mr Lenihan repeated these criteria and added "that the aircraft be unarmed, not carry arms, ammunition or explosives and not engage in intelligence-gathering".

So how can it be maintained there has been no change of policy? We were then opposed to the use of Shannon even in relation to military exercises, now we allow Shannon to be used as a pit-stop for a war.

There are a few historical instances which illuminate previous government policy even clearer.

On the 21 July 1959, a Mr Kimber from the British embassy in Dublin, called on the Secretary of the Department of External Affairs, Mr Cornelius Cremin, to make a request for military facilities.

The British Navy Anti-Submarine School, based in Derry, had wanted to carry out anti-submarine exercises by helicopters at a point about 100 miles west of Derry, a distance then beyond the normal range of helicopters. The problem could be overcome if the Irish government agreed to allow the helicopters to be refuelled on Inistrahull island, which is part of the territory of the Irish State. The idea was to establish a dump of 40 gallon petrol drums on the island, which could be used by the helicopters.

The man from the British embassy was able to bolster his case.

These Derry-based helicopters had been engaged frequently in humanitarian sea rescues of Irish nationals and others and, the implication was, it was a fair quid pro quo for the Irish to give these insignificant refuelling rights on a deserted island in acknowledgement of the humanitarian rescue work done by the British naval service in the area.

Mr Cremin wrote a memorandum on the issue that same day and in it he stated: "It is difficult to see how this request could be acceded to. The islands mentioned (Tory island was also mentioned as a location) are as much part of the national territory as Stephen's Green.

"It is known that we give permission for the landing in our territory of unarmed military planes engaged on peaceful duty, eg US army planes carrying US personnel for leave in Ireland or in transit to the USA. It is quite another thing to give permission not only for aircraft engaged on warlike exercises to land on our territory but also to use our territory as a refuelling base for such exercises".

On 6 August of that year, Mr Kimber called again at the Department of External Affairs. At this meeting Mr Cremin informed him that his request had been considered "at the highest level" and. Mr Cremin noted in a memorandum after the meeting, "It was with regret that I had to tell him that for reasons of which he would be well aware the reply was unfavourable".

A year earlier, on the 18 September 1958, Mr Cremin wrote to his opposite number in the Department of the Taoiseach. In the letter he conveyed that an approach had been made to his Department by the American embassy enquiring what the response of the Irish government would be to a request for overflight rights for US military aircraft "on the clear understanding" that these aircraft would be unarmed and would be engaged solely in conveying cargo (supplies and foodstuffs) and passengers.

The Cremin noted that these flights could serve indirectly to help certain American military operations but that in a time of peace there was nothing in international law which prevents a country from authorising such flights. His Minister (Frank Aiken) was "disposed" to accede to a formal request from the American embassy on such overflights "subject to the understanding that, in the event of a serious deterioration in the political situation in Europe or the Middle East it (the authorisation) would lapse".

(Material for this article has come from the pleadings in the case being taken by Edward Horan against the State on the use of Shannon. The documents referred to were made available under the Freedom of Information Act. )