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Diplomat expulsions overshadow major pension and Leaving Cert reforms

Inside Politics: Russian embassy expulsions followed weeks-long backbench campaign

It’s not every day that you launch major reforms to the State’s pension and education systems before you’ve had lunch, and round out the afternoon by booting out four foreign diplomats for conduct unbecoming of their station.

Another hectic day for the Coalition likely won’t be remembered for the more prosaic pieces of Government, but for the expulsions from the Russian embassy, which followed a weeks-long campaign from the backbenches to take action against the rather oversized Kremlin outpost on Orwell Road.

Both larger Government parties had tolerated a degree of dissent in the ranks over the question of expulsions – specifically that of the ambassador, Yury Filatov. Sizeable contingents of both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael TDs and Senators made it clear that Filatov was their quarry, but the Government held back from even expelling lowlier diplomats – although it was always dangled – usually on the basis that Ireland would act only in concert with the rest of the European Union. Without warning, the Government moved on Orwell Road yesterday.

The choreography around the expulsion was intriguing – secret intelligence briefings for the Taoiseach and Minister for Defence Simon Coveney; Micheál Martin's grave intonation in the Dáil that they were being expelled because "their activities are not in accordance with the international standard of diplomatic behaviour" – code for the diplomats being suspected of spying, as Conor Gallagher and Simon Carswell report today. None of this can be news to the Coalition. It is an article of faith around Leinster House, informed by what appears to be unanimity among the security services, that the Russian Embassy has always been a bit spooky – and not in a haunted way. The embassy denies the premise offered for the expulsions, saying it was "arbitrary" and "groundless".

The briefing from Government strongly suggests that the move was prompted primarily by security concerns – and doubtlessly there is intelligence underpinning it. However, it seems unlikely that intelligence changed dramatically in the last few days. The verdict of the security services on the nature of the operation at the embassy has been public knowledge for years, reported in this paper and elsewhere. Meanwhile, the drumbeat of expulsions was getting louder, and Ireland – which has advertised its maximalist credentials on Russian sanctions – risked being left behind. Earlier this month, Bulgaria, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia expelled diplomats. Last Wednesday, Poland expelled 45 diplomats. On Tuesday, Belgium, the Netherlands and the Czech Republic joined Ireland in expelling 43 staffers. Security concerns were widely cited by other countries.

The focus now is on Russian retaliation – the embassy says the move will "not go unanswered". Ireland was nervous that overextending itself could lead to the closure of its comparatively tiny embassy in Moscow, and while the number of diplomats expelled from Dublin is small – just four – it has rolled the dice on the future of its own mission in Moscow. The Government will hope it calculated the odds correctly, but no matter whether only some, or all, Irish officials are sent packing, the episode shows how there are few, if any, moves without costs available to Ireland when it comes to the war in Ukraine.

Our lead covers the likely next moves when it comes to accommodating thousands of refugees in Ireland.

Elsewhere on the front page, we carry the latest on the peace talks between Russia and Ukraine.

Our page one is rounded out by a story from health editor Paul Cullen, who has news of a row brewing over a top-level appointment at the Rotunda hospital.

Best reads

Miriam Lord's Dáil dispatches are here.

Carl O'Brien has seven key take-aways from the Leaving Cert reforms announced by Norma Foley on Tuesday.

Kathy Sheridan on how only Russians can bring about regime change.

Alex Kane writes that Sinn Féin is brilliant at playing the long game – and is playing the DUP too.

Playbook

Dáil

Action in the Dáil starts at 10am, with Private Members’ Business given over the second stage of the PBP-Solidarity Neutrality Bill.

Leaders' Questions, with Sinn Féin, the Social Democrats, the rural Independent group and the Independent group follows at midday, before questions on promised legislation.

Statements on the Government’s response to the situation in Ukraine and the second stage of the Circular Economy Bill take centre stage in the afternoon, before weekly divisions at 8pm.

The full Dáil schedule is here.

Seanad

The Seanad will hear a motion on Covid Exempt Regulations under the Planning and Development Act 2022, and the second stage of the Government’s Regulation of Providers of Building Works Bill. Those are at 12.45pm and 1.45pm respectively, before a Fine Gael motion on Ukraine at 4pm.

The full Seanad schedule can be found here.

Committees

At the committees, the EU Affairs committee continues to cultivate its prominent role in parsing the impact of the war in Ukraine, hearing from Minister of State Thomas Byrne on his engagements with Brussels on the issue. That's at 9.30am, while the health committee will hear about the impact of Covid on neurological services at the same time.

Central Bank governor Gabriel Makhlouf is before the finance committee at 1.30pm, and Helen McEntee is in front of the Gaeltacht committee at the same time.

There’s more Ukraine action at the transport committee, again at 1.30pm, with representatives from the National Cyber Security Centre among others giving evidence on the possibility of “hybrid threats” arising from the conflict.

Paschal Donohoe is in front of the finance committee at 5.30pm.

The full committees schedule is here.

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