Taoiseach: Government does not intend to expel Russian ambassador

Cutting diplomatic ties ‘always the last resort’ in conflict situations, says Martin

The Government does not intend to expel the Russian ambassador to Ireland unilaterally, Taoiseach Micheál Martin has confirmed, despite a letter urging him to do so signed by 37 Fianna Fáil parliamentarians.

Mr Martin said this morning that Ireland would act in concert with the EU in deciding if any action would be taken to remove Russian diplomats from EU Staters. He also stressed several times the importance of keeping diplomatic channels open.

Asked if he was rejecting the letter signed by Fianna Fáil TDs and Senators calling for the expulsion of the ambassador, Yuri Filatov, Mr Martin said that cutting diplomatic ties was “always the last resort” in conflict situations.

"I can understand the anger of people, and of our public representatives towards Russia and towards Russian representatives in Ireland, personified in the person of the Ambassador.

“(Mr Filatov’s) public presentations have not been good. People in Ireland do not like that type of presentation,” he said.

He indicated Mr Filatov had said one week there was not going to be an invasion and then said the opposite a few days later. “That type of presentation does not sit well with people,” he said.

"On balance we want to retain a capacity to help Irish citizens be it in Russia or be it elsewhere in Ukraine who may need assistance from us urgently. In times of conflict it is important to keep (diplomatic) channels open and also to have very fresh and up-to-date insights about what is happening on the ground in given locations."

He said that is why expelling diplomats was always the last resort, inferring that the Russians would retaliate by expelling Irish diplomats if the Government pursued that action.

‘Always hope’

“We want to have the capacity to help in certain humanitarian situations Irish citizens who are in difficulty in Ukraine or who are in difficulty in Russia as this crisis unfolds.”

He also said that it was important for Ireland to work in concert with the EU. “We should also acknowledge that the EU has responded with remarkable solidarity, speed and determination to impose sanctions on an unprecedented level,” he said.

Mr Martin welcomed the news that there would be dialogue between Russia and the Ukraine. Asked, given Russia’s mendacity in the run-up to the invasion, if the talks would produce anything, he said there was “always hope” when both sides were engaged in dialogue.

“We think dialogue is the only way to end this issue and I would call for an immediate cessation of hostilities and an end to violence. The humanitarian toll is mounting. There is too much loss of life already, too many people have been injured, civilians are under siege in their towns and cities across Ukraine.

“The attack represents four fundamental violations, of the territorial integrity of Ukraine, its sovereignty, but above all the rights of its people to live their lives in a normal way. There is huge anguish as we can see on our TV screens.

“We need to restore the order that was part of the multilateral world since the end of the Cold War.”

Mr Martin was speaking after a ceremony at the Royal College of Physicians in Ireland.

Misled the public

Earlier, Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney said Mr Filatov, either did not know what was going to happen in Ukraine or he deliberately misled the Irish public, an Oireachtas Committee and the Minister as well.

It had become clear in recent days that the Russians had been planning the attack on Ukraine for many months, Mr Coveney told Newstalk Breakfast. The ambassador was “part of that system” and people could make their own judgement.

In the meantime, the advice to the estimated 70 to 90 Irish citizens still in Ukraine was to get out if it was safe to do so through a neighbouring country, if it was not safe to move then they should stay “in situ”.

The Irish Government had a responsibility also to the babies born to Irish parents through surrogacy, he added. That was why lines of communication with Moscow must remain open, he explained.

Later on RTÉ radio's Morning Ireland Mr Coveney said that no country in the EU was looking to expel Ambassadors. The EU would act together to look at options that would send "a clear diplomatic signal" to Moscow. The expulsion of staff (from the embassy) would send a strong signal and Russia would probably respond in the same way, he warned.

Non-lethal fund

The Minister also explained Ireland’s decision to “constructively abstain” from contributing to an EU package to provide nearly half a billion euro of funding for lethal equipment in Ukraine.

Mr Coveney said that when the peace facility was agreed in the EU last year a compromise was made for countries not comfortable with the funding of lethal weapons. Instead Ireland will contribute €9 million to the non-lethal EU fund which will include helmets, medical equipment, kits.

The EU was right to intervene in this way, he said. If the EU did not Ukraine then their moral substance would be questioned.

In the past 24 hours 77,000 people from Ukraine had crossed the border into Poland, 25,000 into the Czech Republic, 90,000 into Romania and 60,000 into Hungary, said Mr Coveney. The UN was estimating that 18 million Ukrainians could be in need of assistance, four million would be refugees and 7 million would be displaced in their own country. "This is the scale of conflict."

The EU response was one that had never been seen before.

Mr Coveney said that his job was to protect Irish citizens and to do that he had to keep the lines of communication open even if he fundamentally disagreed with the people with whom he was communicating. It would not be wise to expel the Ambassador and not have a direct line to Moscow. But he understood the sentiment when there were calls for the expulsion of the Ambassador.

Expulsion petitions

On Sunday, members of the Fine Gael parliamentary party were circulating a draft petition calling for his expulsioncirculating a draft petition calling for Yury Mr Filatov's expulsion, which had attracted signatures from 13 TDs.

It followed comments from Mr Coveney, who told the Sunday Independent he felt it was important to keep diplomatic channels open with Russia – a view mirrored by Minister for Justice Helen McEntee and Minister of State Patrick O’Donovan.

Senior Government sources fear Moscow would close the Irish embassy there in retaliation, amid ongoing demand for consular services.

Fine Gael TD Charlie Flanagan, who is chairman of the Oireachtas foreign affairs committee and a former minister for justice, called on Mr Filatov to leave the country, saying he "lied to our parliamentary committee" when he appeared before it earlier in February.

Fianna Fáil TDs and Senators have also doubled down on their own petition, launched last week, to expel Mr Filatov.

Government sources said there was less emphasis on expulsions in Brussels, with fears over how they could impact the functioning of humanitarian corridors – although they remain on the table. Coalition leaders are thought to be of the view that lines to Moscow need to remain open and are worried about sparking tit-for-tat expulsions.

Meanwhile, the Sinn Féin vice president has called for Russian diplomats to be expelled from Dublin and London.

Speaking in the North’s Assembly on Monday, the North’s former Deputy First Minister also called for tougher sanctions from the EU, saying that they must be “on such a scale where there can be no doubt that Putin and his oligarch supporters will pay a huge price for choosing the course of military conflict over dialogue and diplomacy.”

Michelle O’Neill said Russian diplomats, “the apologists for Putin based in London and Dublin, should be expelled today, and without delay” and there must be “zero visa restrictions on those refugees forced to leave their homeland of Ukraine to come to these islands.

“The [UK]Prime Minister Boris Johnson must ensure, like Dublin has done, safe and seamless entry so families can be reunited on humanitarian grounds, and without conditions applied,” she said.

The Alliance Party leader Naomi Long also called for the UK government to do more, describing the efforts of the Home Office as “rather half-hearted and slightly depressing” but adding her own powers as Northern Ireland’s Minister for Justice were limited in terms of what she could do to welcome Ukrainian refugees to the North.

“I wish that they would go further, I wish that they would remove the requirements for visas, I wish that they would be more open about welcoming people to the UK and I believe they should do so,” she said.