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Expulsion of Russian diplomats marks low-point in Irish relations with Moscow

Orwell Road embassy suspected of being a front for intelligence gathering since 1970s

The Government's expulsion of four Russian diplomats as a signal to the Kremlin of Ireland's condemnation of the war in Ukraine marks a low-point in relations between the two countries.

Resisting weeks of public and political pressure to expel Russian ambassador Yuriy Filatov, Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney has said he wanted to keep diplomatic channels open between Dublin and Moscow in the interests of Irish citizens.

Instead the Government is removing four senior officials from Moscow’s diplomatic outpost in a south Dublin suburb - where it currently has 31 diplomats - for activities that “have not been in accordance with international standards of diplomatic behaviour” - essentially code for spying.

The Rathgar embassy, sitting on a spacious five-acre site with various out-buildings, has been focal point for demonstrations against Russia since its invasion of Ukraine on February 24th with pro-Ukraine and anti-Putin posters and graffiti adorning the walls and road outside.

Earlier this month, Filatov accused protesters of being “rough and really aggressive” at the embassy and of intimidating staff and vandalising the entrance. Three days later, a truck went through the gates resulting in the arrest of the driver.

Relations were already fraught prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In January the Government called Russia’s naval exercises off Ireland’s south-west coast “unwelcome” before Moscow relocated them out of Ireland’s economic zone under pressure from local fishermen.

Later that month Coveney said at a private Fine Gael meeting he was "surprised" by an "ill-judged" photo of the Defence Forces chief of staff meeting the Russian ambassador at the embassy, before expressing "full support" for Lieutenant General Seán Clancy in the Dáil a day later.

Russia's diplomatic team in Dublin - outsized relative to the 5,000-strong population of Russian citizens in Ireland - has long drawn suspicions that Moscow was using Ireland, perceived as a weak link in the European security infrastructure, as a beachhead into the EU and for surveillance.

Two years ago, the scale of Moscow’s presence in Ireland was enough of a concern for the Government to pass legislation blocking planning applications granted in 2015 to stop the expansion of the embassy with new buildings on the grounds of national security.

Expelling diplomats may seem extraordinary but it is not the first time it has happened.

In fact, it is not even the first time Micheál Martin has expelled Russian officials. In early 2011, as minister for foreign affairs, Mr Martin ordered the expulsion of one Russian diplomat over the embassy’s involvement in forging Irish passports for use by Russian spies operating in the US.

Despite occasional platitudes to the contrary, diplomatic relations have always been frosty, says DCU Professor Donnacha Ó Beacháin who specialises in post-soviet Russian politics.

Suspicion that much of its embassy operations were a front for intelligence gathering date back to when the Orwell Road operation first opened in the 1970s as the Embassy of the Soviet Union.

“When the Irish go abroad they would hire cleaners, drivers, translators etc locally. The Russians would bring everyone with them. The joke was always that the chauffeur was more senior that the guy he was driving because he was of course a KGB operative,” said Ó Beacháin.

In 1983, Garret Fitzgerald's government expelled three Russians after a Garda investigation found Russian spies were using Stillorgan Shopping Centre in Dublin as a base for the handover of stolen US military secrets.

In 2018, Mr Coveney expelled a single Russian diplomat in solidarity with the UK over the Salisbury nerve-agent attack.

The question now is whether Russia will respond in kind by expelling Irish diplomats in Moscow, of which there is six.

The Russian Embassy has said the Government's move "will not go unanswered."

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