Taoiseach Bertie Ahern was attacked today for comments in which he said he had always been opposed to the war in Iraq.
Opposition parties and anti-war campaigners branded his comments “an insult” after United States military planes were given access Shannon airport and Mr Ahern maintained positive relations with President Bush immediately prior to and throughout the conflict.
Mr Ahern said he was “not remotely surprised” Ireland had been banned by the White House from a list of countries which can bid for major contracts in the reconstruction of Iraq.
He insisted the decision vindicated his stance on Iraq, claiming he had always been opposed to the conflict.
“It will prove to people that the agreement for US troops to use Shannon was not seen as support of the war,” said a Government spokeswoman.
“Before troops entered Iraq we voiced our opposition to the conflict and made it clear we took the UN line.”
The fact that Shannon airport was later used by tens of thousands of US troops en route to and from Iraq was obviously not seen as support for the US, she added.
The Taoiseach’s comments have amazed those who have protested against Ireland’s stance on the war over the last year.
Pat Rabbitte, leader of the Labour Party, said Mr Ahern was insulting the intelligence of the Irish electorate.
“These extraordinary attempts to reinvent himself as a peace-activist are in stark contrast to the craven approach he adopted to President Bush and his colleagues in the run up to and during the course of the war,” he said.
“If he did indeed oppose the war, Mr Ahern kept it a closely guarded secret for the entire course of the conflict, refusing to give a straight answer to any question as to where Ireland stood, while at the same time actively facilitating the massive US-led military operation with the use of facilities at Shannon.
“He now claims that the fact that Ireland is not on the list of privileged countries that will be allowed by the United States to pick the economic bones of Iraq is proof that he was recognised as an opponent of the war.
“Why then did he tell me in the Dáil during the course of the war that he presumed Ireland was one of those included on the “list of the willing”, the list of countries produced by the United States of those who supported the war?”
The Irish Anti War Movement branded the Taoiseach’s comments “ridiculous”.
Chairman Richard Boyd Barrett, said: “The Taoiseach’s claim that he opposed the war on Iraq is the most spectacular example to date of this Government’s attempts to cover up its collusion with the US invasion of Iraq.
“First they tried to cover up about the extent to which Shannon was being used by the US military and lie about the fact that US soldiers were carrying weapons.
“Now they are trying to whitewash completely the fact that they played a key role in facilitating the US war on Iraq and are still facilitating the occupation.”
Fine Gael’s spokesman on foreign affairs, Gay Mitchell, said Mr Ahern had been made to look foolish.
“In weighing Irish interests in relation to the use of Shannon by the US military and allowing US over-flights of Ireland during the Iraq war, the Government claims it took into account our trading and commercial interests with the US.
“But it now seems that the US does not have a reciprocal view and the Taoiseach has been made to look rather foolish,” he said.
“Unlike the leaders of other European states the Taoiseach does not seem to be prepared to make a case for Irish businesses and give them an opportunity to participate in the rebuilding of Iraq.
“Ireland could bring more commercial interests to the service of rebuilding this devastated country but this will only happen if our government is pro-active and not cowered into silence.”
Foreign Affairs Minister Brian Cowan said Irish businesses would still compete for the smaller sub-contracts in Iraq, including the restoration of oil services and equipping the Iraqi army.
He said Ireland would not have had the capacity to bid for the 26 major contracts anyway.
“In practical terms Irish businesses are precluded from applying for the big contracts, but it is the smaller contracts companies from this country would be interested in,” said a spokeswoman from the Department of Foreign Affairs.
“Our exclusion from this list will not affect them at all.”
The White House said on Thursday that countries wanting a share of the €14.5 in reconstruction contracts must participate militarily in the post-war effort.
France, Germany and Russia have effectively been barred by the US-led Authority running Iraq, from bidding for the contracts.