Ireland right to expel Russian diplomat over UK incident
Objections reflect traditional notions of Irish neutrality and exceptionalism
Russia’s ambassador to Ireland Yury Filatov, hold a press conference at the Russian embassy in Dublin after the Government confirmed it would expel a Russian diplomat. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
Sinn Féin and some others on the left of Irish politics were quick to criticise the Government’s decision to expel a Russian embassy official in the wake of a nerve agent attack on a former Russian intelligence officer, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter Yulia in the English city of Salisbury. Their objections are twofold. First, Ireland is a neutral country. A conflict between the UK and Russia is not our concern. Second, they claim the Government should not trust British intelligence assessments. After all, MI6 got it wrong when it came to weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
Both these objections reflect traditional notions of exceptionalism, namely that Ireland is a virtuous state that does not take sides in the conflicts of other countries, especially those involving former colonial powers such the UK. These concerns are of course deeply felt and deserving of a response.
The UK and Russia are not at war. Indeed, each country retains an embassy in the other’s capital. Irish military neutrality is therefore not in play. What happened in the UK was a crime. The British government, the European Union, the United States and a range of other governments have concluded that it is highly likely that the Kremlin carried out the attack in Salisbury. Stemming from Ireland’s and the UK’s membership of the EU and the sharing of a Common Travel Area, the Republic has an obligation to help protect the UK from serious crimes, including those committed by states.
A number of TDs have called on the Government to make public intelligence that proves that Russia is guilty. Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald complained that Ireland was essentially being “asked to trust Boris Johnson”, the British foreign secretary.
Calls for full transparency fundamentally misunderstand intelligence as a tool of statecraft. The UK and its allies have identified that the nerve agent used in Salisbury came from a highly specific source, called Novichok, a supply of nerve agents tightly controlled by the regime of President Vladimir Putin. The briefings provided by the UK national security adviser, Mark Sedwill, to EU member states, including Ireland, were extensive and contained intelligence from a variety of sources.
The UK and other EU countries must be careful how they handle sensitive intelligence so as not to endanger lives, including those of agents, and/or give Russia an unnecessary advantage. Unlike the lead-up to the Iraq war, this was not an assessment of whether a state possessed chemical weapons and might be prepared to use them. Instead the UK is leading a criminal investigation into the proven use of a weapon of mass destruction. Sergei and Yulia Skripal, lying in an English hospital, are testament to this fact.
EU governments are convinced: Sedwill, formerly permanent secretary at the Home Office (a role that includes oversight over intelligence matters), made a compelling case. UK intelligence services also briefed Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who is now convinced that the nerve agent used in Salisbury came from Russia. However, Corbyn’s own assessment is that it is still possible that Moscow somehow lost control of its Novichok stockpile. That, to professionals such as Sedwill, appears very unlikely.
Even if the Government were to take Corbyn’s possible explanation seriously, it would still have alarming consequences for Ireland and the EU. Either the regime in Moscow carried out the attack or a transnational criminal group was able to access Russian chemical weapons and carry out an attack in a European city. The conclusion is still the same: that Russia is a country that poses a threat to EU citizens.
Russia has not provided any answers or evidence to support Corbyn’s theory. Given such stonewalling, and the more likely explanation that the Russian intelligence services were behind the attack, Ireland and other EU member states were fully justified in expelling Russian embassy officials. Moscow’s decision to expel an Irish diplomat in response should not deter Ireland from further action, including rigorously applying any future EU sanctions aimed at punishing the Putin regime.
Complacency is not an option for Ireland. In recent months cybersecurity analysts have observed an alarming increase in cyber attacks on Irish targets by hackers linked to Moscow’s intelligence services. Russia wants to steal secrets, including from Irish-based technology companies, to give it an advantage in its escalating conflict against the West.
Mary Lou McDonald, indirectly at least, made a valid point in response to the Russian embassy expulsion when she said that she was not willing to take the word of a rival (or foreign) politician when it comes to national security and intelligence. Tánaiste Simon Coveney took a leading role in briefing Opposition TDs on the Russian link to Salisbury.
Ireland does not have a national security adviser to oversee intelligence assessments and liaise with the Oireachtas. Neither, as is the case in many other EU member states, does the Oireachtas have an intelligence and security committee with cross-party membership that can meet behind closed doors to consider sensitive intelligence briefings and material that must remain secret.
Such a gap in State infrastructure for the management and distribution of intelligence material greatly restricts the potential for informed policy discussions on threats to Ireland’s security. Johnson had almost nothing to do in assembling the intelligence briefing given by the UK for EU member states and other allies. Sedwill took the lead. That is how it should be.
Dr Edward Burke is an assistant professor in international relations at the University of Nottingham