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WikiLeaks: Recalling an earlier State Department leak

The leaking of State Department documents on Wikileaks will have particular resonance at the U.S. embassy in Dublin. Frank comments about Ireland in a confidential message to Washington once caused an international flap and prompted the U.S. ambassador to send a diplomat home in disgrace.

The diplomat was cultural attache Robin Berrington, who didn’t like his posting in Ireland very much. He would have much preferred Japan, where he had been a student. In December 1980, Berrington expressed his feelings in a New Year's letter, which he dispatched to colleagues at State.

Berrington's letter was leaked to the Irish Times news desk, where I was on duty as news editor. We decided to print it as a frank and honest assessment of our then-wretched condition.

Ireland was “pretty small potatoes” compared to the other countries of Europe, Berrington wrote. “No great issues burn up the wires between Dublin and Washington. The country has food and climate well matched for each other — dull. ... The one bright spot is the people, but after two and a half years, they remain enigmatic and unpredictable despite their easy approachability and charm. ... The high cost of goods, their unavailability, the dreary urbanscapes, the constant strikes and the long, dark and damp winters combine to gnaw away at one’s enthusiasm for being here. The troubles up north are a constant depression as well, and there is no end in sight for that complex, senseless tragedy. ... The hottest item now seems to be the question of whether or not Ronald Reagan’s ancestors really do come from County Tipperary.”

After some sideswipes at “wild-eyed” Irish republicans and the Anglo-Irish set, “who speak as if they had marbles in their mouths,” Berrington proceeded to categorize the Irish in general as “a people with too much human nature — violent and compassionate — for their own good.”

Almost as an afterthought Berrington described a visit to Britain, where he found the English “insufferable ... . Whatever reservations I may have about Ireland, at least the Irish are warm, lively human beings.”

The story ran under the headline “Warm Irish But Dull Country,” and was accompanied by an editorial praising Berrington as a rare diplomat who spoke his mind and who restored “one’s faith in the humanity of diplomats.” It “was worth a dozen speeches to Rotary or Chambers of Commerce. It was fresh, critical but with a good deal of feeling. Any Irishman couldn’t have done better. He deserves to be promoted.”

However the next morning the U.S. ambassador, William Shannon, ordered Berrington to leave the country within 48 hours. Back in the United States he was confronted with negative news stories about his undiplomatic observations. The New York Times suggested he should have been left to “cook in the Irish stew he created.” The Washington Star headlined its account of the scandal, “Small Potatoes Line Irks Irish.” Time magazine made his “small potatoes” remark a quote of the week, noting that it had “outraged the Irish.”

In fact the Berrington letter had not outraged the Irish. If anything, there was resentment that Shannon had not stood by his man. Seventeen Irish journalists sent a telegram to the State Department demanding that the unfair decision be reversed. Gay Byrne, presenter of Ireland’s most popular morning radio show, praised Berrington for telling the truth.

Opinion swung behind the diplomat. The New York Times did a follow-up story reporting that Berrington was actually winning praise from many Irish for his frank comments and that several writers to The Irish Times had suggested that he become the next ambassador to Ireland. The Washington Star reversed itself and said Bord Failte, the Irish tourist board should hire Berrington as a consultant.

Berrington kept his job in the diplomatic service. He was told to lie low until a few months later when he began his next posting — to Japan. Any concern that he would not be welcome there, because of the contretemps in Dublin, was dismissed by the American Ambassador to Tokyo, Mike Mansfield, who sent word to the State Department: “I could use anyone who could write a letter like that; I like his style.”

More on the WikiLeaks cables:

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