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Why diplomacy is the only answer to 'Irish question'

Leaks of classified documents addressed to shadowy organisations attached to the White House telling of secret meetings with government officials, American agents gathering information on the machinations of local politicians: it's the stuff of a John le Carre or Graham Greene novel.

You can almost imagine the scene: the American Consul, in an immaculate white suit, meeting a crumpled-looking, furtive contact in the dark back corner of a pub: a brown manila file is passed under the table and conversation is hushed and snatched.

The reality of the diplomatic information-gathering process is really much more pedantic. Usually, it starts with the morning newspapers, which will be read and digested and anything interesting will be noted down, or maybe scanned and emailed across the Atlantic.

If it is interesting enough; maybe the Consul General will meet an editor for lunch, in plain view in a city-centre restaurant, to see if there is any more information to be garnered.

It has always been the case that journalists know, or at least strongly suspect, more than they are able to print, due to the need to protect sources, themselves or to avoid the attentions of increasingly vociferous libel lawyers. The political classes are enthusiastic consumers of superinjunctions.

Armed with a bit of background, the Vice-Consul will visit Parliament buildings at Stormont and, after queuing and signing in like any other lobbyist, or member of the public, will visit a number of busy offices to chat about the latest political developments.

Or perhaps the party leaders will pay a call on the US Consulate General in Stranmillis to meet with a visiting congressman and pitch their party's point of view. Or maybe a junior diplomat will run into a MLA at a charity event and have a chat about the news of the day.

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Is this trading in confidential information? In some ways, yes. But it is unlikely to involve anything that is not already circulating as gossip.

In most cases, it is just a process of trying to stand up what Northern Ireland's notoriously well-informed dogs in the street already know. It is hardly news to learn that Margaret Ritchie isn't in the same league as Margaret Thatcher.

The difference between you and I nattering over a cappuccino and a diplomat meeting a contact like this, is that the diplomat will formally report the conversation, with the addition of a bit of background or context, to a central source, such as the State Department or National Security Council, which will use the information to put together a picture of the political, economic or security situation in a country. It will also be copied around other embassies and US government offices which might have an interest. But what is the purpose of all this information-gathering and sharing? It is to further the US national interest. Defining exactly what that might be is a somewhat trickier question.

But, as the British Isles is a bit of real estate where Americans visit, do business and park their warplanes, it is generally considered that to have Ireland and the UK at peace with each other, developing economically, pro-American, and without the threat of terrorist activity would be a good thing.

It is to the credit of the US Foreign Service that, throughout the cache of cables that the Belfast Telegraph has obtained, there is never once a partisan view expressed as to what Americans call 'the Irish question'.

It appears that, while some diplomats can, when they feel it necessary, use distinctly undiplomatic language, they remain scrupulously professional in their commitment to maintaining a neutral and balanced position.

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