Analysis: there was a high level of tetchiness between Ireland and the US when it came to transatlantic aviation in the 1960s

By Michael Kennedy, Royal Irish Academy

In the late 1960s, Aer Lingus was thinking supersonic. It had two Boeing 2707 aircraft – Boeing’s rival to the Anglo-French Concorde - on order. By the mid-1970s, they would whisk passengers from Ireland in under two hours at three times the speed of sound to JFK aiport in New York.

That was, if the United States authorities still allowed Aer Lingus to land at JFK. In the late 1960s it looked very likely that the Irish airline would soon have its JFK landing rights revoked.

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From RTÉ Archives, Philip Bromwell reports for RTÉ News in 2008 on the 50th anniversary of the first Aer Lingus transatlanic flight

We think of relations between Washington and Dublin as being eternally friendly. The huge percentage of Americans who claim Irish roots, the annual shamrock ceremony and the number of US presidents with Irish ancestors all play to this rose-tinted view.

But for much of the 20th century, relations between Dublin and Washington at the highest diplomatic level had a distinctly tetchy side to them. For example, Ireland’s Second World War neutrality did not go down well in the White House.

There was a particular level of tetchiness too when it came to transatlantic aviation. After the war when transatlantic aviation was coming of age, passenger aircraft needed to refuel before making an oceanic crossing. Dublin let the big United States carriers of the age, Pan American and TWA, land at Shannon for these all-important refuelling stops, but they were not allowed land at Dublin Airport.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's History Show, Lorcan Clancy reports on the Pan-Am plane crash in Ennis in 1948

Passenger flights from North America to Ireland accordingly landed only at Shannon. Aer Lingus’s transatlantic service was operated by a subsidiary company Aerlínte Éireann. It brought its transatlantic flights into Shannon first and, after a stopover, Aer Lingus brought them onwards to Dublin.

Dublin played hardball with the US over ‘Dublin Landing Rights’ for some 20 years and would not renegotiate the 1945 Irish-American Aviation Agreement to allow access to Dublin. Indeed, successive volumes of the Documents on Irish Foreign Policy series have covered the increasingly vexed issue of Dublin Landing Rights.

It all came to a crisis point between in the mid-1960s. Pan Am put pressure on the White House to force the Irish government to allow US carriers access to Dublin. They felt that since Aer Lingus had rights to the best United States markets (New York, Boston and Chicago), Pan Am, TWA and others should have rights to the best Irish market, namely Dublin.

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From RTÉ Archives, RTÉ News report from 1962 on new uniforms for Aer Lingus staff

But Dublin steadfastly refused to negotiate with Washington over access to Dublin. Taoiseach Seán Lemass, a life-long supporter of Irish aviation who was responsible for founding Aer Lingus in 1936, and his successor from November 1966 Jack Lynch, knew that Shannon Airport provided substantial employment and was an asset for economic development in the west of Ireland.

When approached by US diplomats in summer 1965, Lemass made it clear that by-passing Shannon was not open for negotiation. Where US officials argued that opening Dublin to US carriers would improve North American tourist traffic to Ireland, Dublin countered that Shannon was the gateway to the country for tourists.

Lemass wanted Aer Lingus to continue its monopoly on the Dublin-New York route, but he sensed that it was a matter now of when Dublin would have to give ground. His minutes to civil servants and his letters to Cabinet colleagues show his poker player’s mind and his shrewd negotiator’s instincts at work.

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From RTÉ Archives, Mike Burns reports for RTÉ News on the arrival of a new Boeing 707 at Aer Lingus in 1964

Lemass wrote to Secretary of the Department of the Taoiseach Nicholas Nolan in March 1966 that ‘we cannot continue to resist the U.S. pressure for rights into Dublin on a limited and turn-around basis, and now is the time when we should be deciding on the advantages we should seek to extract in return for our agreement to it.’

By January 1967, Lynch was pushing opening negotiations with Washington further into the future. He suggested to American ambassador to Ireland Raymond Guest that discussions might begin shortly after a formal request for the UIS to revise the 1945 aviation agreement. Reports from the Irish ambassador in Washington William Fay suggested that the US was not yet ready to make that formal request to open active negotiations at political level, hoping that technical level discussions might reach a solution. A showdown was thus averted.

Minister for External Affairs Frank Aiken war-gamed Ireland’s next step, writing to Lynch that: ‘The U.S. Government may be slow at the present time to risk the possible adverse reaction of Irish-American elements in the United States to an American denunciation of the Agreement – which seems to be the only economic repercussion which it would be reasonable to expect.’

Dublin hoped that the fear of political repercussions from Irish-America would be enough to prevent ending Aerlínte's rights into the US

Minister for Transport and Power Erskine Childers agreed. He informed his Cabinet colleagues that ‘the risk of denunciation is real. Denunciation would weaken the Irish position in any subsequent negotiations … this risk should be taken.’ Childers knew that Aerlínte Éireann could not survive if its landing rights into JFK were ended.

Dublin initially hoped that the fear of political repercussions from Irish-America would be enough to prevent the US from ending Aerlínte’s rights into JFK. But by March 1967 they realised that with Pan-Am being officially designated by the Johnson administration as the chosen US carrier for flights into Dublin, the US was not going to risk embarrassment to the president by letting the ‘Dublin Landing Rights’ question stand unresolved. Washington was building up for a head on conflict with Dublin.

In August 1967, the US ratcheted up their position with a personal letter from Secretary of State Dean Rusk to Aiken seeking revision of the 1945 agreement and implicitly threatening its termination. Lynch instructed Aiken to ‘take whatever initiative is necessary’.

An election issue?

Dublin planned to hold out until after the 1968 US presidential election when Johnson was unlikely to be re-elected. He had so many problems on his plate that he would not act on the Dublin Rights issue and could not risk alienating the Irish-American vote, although senior Irish officials realised this vote was now of marginal value.

Aiken replied to Rusk in early September 1967 that there would be no revision of the 1945 agreement. Aiken maintained that Ireland was too small to have two transatlantic airports. Shannon would remain Ireland’s transatlantic airport ‘in view of the dire need of developing our West and South-West and preventing Ireland becoming a one-city State.’

‘Our considered view that the entry into Dublin of a US carrier', he concluded, 'is something which neither our Parliament nor our Electorate could be persuaded to accept if advocated by any Irish Government. It would not only be in conflict with the policy of developing the West upon which the mass of our people are insistent but would also result in great loss to our national airline.’

The historical ties so often praised as the basis of Irish-American relations meant little in the case of the Dublin landing rights issue

Rusk’s August 1967 letter to Aiken was a significant turning point in the Dublin Rights Issue as it brought it from official to high political level. From that point, Dublin was just putting off the inevitable. Fay informed Aiken that Rusk considered his letter to be ‘no laughing matter’: it was his last move before the US took action.

In the final analysis, Dublin was unable, as Nolan put it to Lynch in September 1967, to ‘defer the evil day’. The Nixon and Ford administrations further elevated ‘Dublin Landing Rights’ up the political agenda. It even made it to the desk of National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger.

In late July 1971, Washington announced that it would withdraw Aer Lingus’ rights to land at JFK from August 1972. After a quarter of a century, the Americans had finally called Ireland’s bluff. By spring 1972, Irish-American relations were at their worst since the Second World War. Dublin was forced to negotiate and Liam Cosgrave's government allowed US carriers entry into Dublin in 1973, with Aer Lingus getting further Stateside landing rights in return. For all that, TWA only operated into Dublin to 1979 and Pan Am showed little interest in Dublin once it got the rights.

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From RTÉ Archives, Cathal O'Shannon reports for Newsbeat on the inaugural Aer Lingus Boeing 747 flight from Dublin to JFK in 1971

The historical ties so often praised as the basis of Irish-American relations meant little in the case of the Dublin landing rights issue. At its core was how the commercial and economic might of a superpower was used against a small state that had a small successful airline that had beaten Pan-Am, the chosen instrument of US air policy, at its own game. Pan-Am were, in the words of former Aer Lingus official Neil Gleeson, ‘bastards of the ultimate degree'. They wanted revenge for their lack of access to Dublin, and they got it.

And that Boeing 2707? It was cancelled in 1971 and Aer Lingus never did go supersonic.

Documents on Irish Foreign Policy Vol. XIII, 1965-1969, will be published by the Royal Irish Academy in November

Dr Michael Kennedy is Executive Editor of the Royal Irish Academy's Documents on Irish Foreign Policy series


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ