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Were Zelenskiy’s comments about Ireland lost in translation?

Ireland has declined to provide lethal aid but has been a strong supporter in other ways

An apparent slight on Ireland's support of Ukraine by president Volodymyr Zelenskiy in an address to European Union leaders sparked a furore of interpretation.

According to the official English translation provided by the Ukrainian president's office, after repeatedly naming various countries that "stand for us", Zelenskiy said "Ireland – well, almost".

Portugal also received an "almost", while Germany's support was described as "a little later". Outright criticism was reserved for Hungary's leader, Viktor Orbán, who Zelenskiy scaldingly called out for hesitating to back sanctions.

Was the remark lost in translation?

Immediately before naming the countries, Zelenskiy had been speaking about Ukraine’s EU membership prospects, making it possible that the remark refers to Ireland’s position on that only. But Ireland has distinguished itself in support for Ukrainian membership, which complicates that understanding.

It's possible that the leader of a nation fending off an invasion did not give the wording too much thought

It’s said that the English simultaneous translator as EU leaders heard the address live went with “practically” rather than “almost”.

On reviewing the footage, a Ukrainian friend confirms that “well, almost” is the literal translation in English of what Mr Zelenskiy said.

But the Irish Government insists it's a mistake to read too much into the remark.

Of course, it’s possible that the leader of a nation fending off an invasion, who is living under the threat of aerial bombardment, did not give the wording too much thought.

Name and shame

But there are reasons to think that is not the case. Calling out countries publicly is a tactic Mr Zelenskiy has used repeatedly since the outbreak of the invasion to name and shame leaders into open support.

The Italian government was horrified when Zelenskiy appeared to criticise prime minister Mario Draghi in a tweet the day after the invasion, and scrambled to fix perceptions that Italy was holding back sanctions.

A mooted black mark against Ireland is the Government's rejection of a call from the Ukranian ambassador to shut down Aughinish Alumina refinery

Zelenskiy’s put-down was apparently effective: after a phone call between the two the next day, the Ukrainian leader announced that Mr Draghi had backed Russia’s disconnection from the Swift banking payments system.

A mooted black mark against Ireland is the Government's rejection of a call from the Ukranian ambassador to shut down Aughinish Alumina refinery, an important employer in Limerick ultimately controlled by the conglomerate Rusal of oligarch Oleg Deripaska.

At one point during the rounds of talks about sanctions that have gone on for weeks in Brussels, some diplomats briefed that Ireland was among the EU member states to resist sanctions on Deripaska, along with Austria and Germany. But this was hotly denied by Dublin.

Yet on sanctions more broadly, Ireland has been among the keener member states to agree additional measures to hit Russia’s economy, supporting even the most contentious issue of energy imports.

EU candidacy

In other matters, Ireland has been an outright frontrunner: it was the only western European government to join Baltic and eastern member states earlier this week in a call for Ukraine to be named an EU membership candidate, a group that has informally been called the “Friends of Ukraine”.

Ireland also acted earlier than the EU as a whole to welcome refugees, by quickly waiving visa requirements to make it easy for Ukrainians to come to safety.

The importance placed on military support by Ukrainians should not be underestimated

Another explanation about why Ireland received faint praise may be because it stands out among EU member states for its stance on providing military aid.

Ireland, along with Malta and Austria, were the states to stay out of a joint EU military fund for Ukraine, opting to stick with non-lethal support such as medical supplies.

The importance placed on military support by Ukrainians should not be underestimated. It’s not just a demand of the government, but it’s also the cry of street protesters, and military aid since before the invasion is a significant reason why Britain is considered a strong ally in the country.

Naomi O’Leary

Naomi O'Leary

Naomi O’Leary is Europe Correspondent of The Irish Times