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FactCheck: Was Enda Kenny right about Charlie Flanagan and the Russian ambassador?

The Taoiseach was accused of misleading the Dáil last week. But was what he said true?

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ENDA KENNY WAS accused of misleading the Dáil last week when he claimed, earlier this month, that Foreign Affairs Minister Charlie Flanagan had “called in” Russia’s ambassador Maxim Peshkov and conveyed to him the government’s criticism of recent developments in Syria.

Fianna Fáil’s Foreign Affairs Spokesperson, Darragh O’Brien made the allegation, adding: “That didn’t happen.”

Is what the Taoiseach told the Dáil that day accurate?

(Send your FactCheck requests to factcheck@thejournal.ie, tweet @TJ_FactCheck, or send us a DM).

Claim: Charlie Flanagan called in the Russian ambassador on 27 September, and conveyed to him the government’s criticism of recent developments in Syria.
Verdict: Mostly FALSE

  • Flanagan, to all intents and purposes, does appear to have called in the Russian ambassador that day
  • But the ambassador met with departmental officials, and not Flanagan
  • Flanagan could not have, and did not, convey to the ambassador what the Taoiseach claimed he did, because Flanagan was not at the meeting

What was said:

Source: TheJournal.ie/YouTube

You can watch a video of the Taoiseach’s claims, and a breakdown of the facts, above.

THE FACTS

There’s quite a bit of “he said, she said” involved in this, so we’re going to break down the sequence of events very clearly.

27 September

Two officials from the Department of Foreign Affairs meet with Russian Ambassador Maxim Peshkov at Iveagh House, where the department is located.

4 October

Screen Shot 2016-10-26 at 7.17.03 PM Source: Oireachtas.ie

Enda Kenny, in response to a question from Micheál Martin, tells the Dáil:

The Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade called in the Russian ambassador last Tuesday [27 September] and left the ambassador in no uncertain terms as to the way this country feels about the human catastrophe that is unfolding and has unfolded in both Syria, and particularly in Aleppo.
The Minister for Foreign Affairs made it perfectly clear our absolute disgust and abhorrence of the bombing of a UN humanitarian convoy going to Aleppo to relieve people who have neither had food nor water for quite some time, and the catastrophic deaths of men, women and children, in particular”.
…Let me repeat to you, Deputy Martin, that on last Tuesday, he [Flanagan] called in the Russian ambassador and left the ambassador in no uncertain position as to the way this country feels about the catastrophic humanitarian catastrophe that has afflicted Syria now for some time, but Aleppo in particular.
…Let me assure you, and let me assure the House, that Minister Flanagan made it perfectly clear to the Russian ambassador just how strongly this country feels about what’s happened and happening in Aleppo before our eyes.

6 October

In response to a question from Fine Gael TD Brendan Griffin, Flanagan tells the Dáil:

Ireland’s concerns have been directly conveyed in the clearest terms to the Russian authorities at my direction.

10 October

The same two departmental officials meet Peshkov again at Iveagh House.

11 October

seancrowepq Source: Oireachtas.ie

In response to a parliamentary question from Sinn Féin TD Seán Crowe, Flanagan writes:

At my direction, senior officials in my Department met with the Russian ambassador on Tuesday 27 September and Ireland’s concerns in relation to the human catastrophe that is unfolding in Syria – and in the city of Aleppo in particular – were directly conveyed to him in the clearest terms.

In a separate PQ response on the same date, to Micheál Martin, the Minister writes:

Ireland’s concerns have been directly conveyed in the clearest terms to the Russian authorities at my direction.

20 October

Screen Shot 2016-10-26 at 7.19.54 PM Source: Oireachtas.ie

In the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade and Defence, Fianna Fáil’s Foreign Affairs Spokesperson Darragh O’Brien quotes Enda Kenny’s claim on 4 October, and adds:

That didn’t happen, Minister. You didn’t call in the Russian ambassador. I put it to you that the Taoiseach misled the House.
I met with the Russian ambassador to convey my party’s concerns of his government’s role in what’s happening in Aleppo.
Your party leader and your Taoiseach told the House that you called the Russian ambassador in, and you did not.

Flanagan replies:

It’s normal practice for a Foreign Minister to have his views conveyed to an ambassador through his or her most senior officials – in this case on two occasions, exclusively and specifically about the situation in Syria.

He calls O’Brien’s concerns a “semantic issue” and adds:

I did call in the Russian ambassador, which is exactly what the Taoiseach informed the Dáil, that I had called in the Russian ambassador.
The Russian ambassador was left in no uncertain terms about how this country feels, about how I feel, and indeed about how the Taoiseach feels about the ongoing human catastrophe unfolding in Syria, particularly in the city of Aleppo.
That’s exactly what the Taoiseach said, and that is correct.

Screen Shot 2016-10-26 at 7.23.34 PM Source: Oireachtas.ie

That is not exactly what the Taoiseach said.

The Taoiseach said specifically that “The Minister for Foreign Affairs…left the ambassador in no uncertain terms”, not that “The Russian ambassador was left in no uncertain terms”.

Flanagan continues:

On my direct instructions, the ambassador was called into my department and my concerns were fully and clearly communicated to him by two of my most senior officials.
I’m very happy to meet the Russian ambassador…

Monday 24 October

According to the Department of Foreign Affairs, Charlie Flanagan meets the Russian ambassador in person at Iveagh House, along with the same two officials who had met Peshkov on two previous occasions.

Tuesday 25 October

Charlie Flanagan tells the Dáil:

The facts call into question the legitimacy of Assad’s regime, its authority, and indeed its authority to invite military support from other states.
I made that position clear in a recent meeting I had with the representative of Russia in Ireland, the Russian ambassador.

Evaluating the facts

kennyobrienflanagan Source: Oireachtas.ie

Our purpose in this fact check is to evaluate whether the Taoiseach’s claims in the Dáil on 4 October were true.

So let’s examine what he claimed:

  • Charlie Flanagan called in the Russian ambassador on 27 September

In response to FactCheck, a spokesperson for the Taoiseach said “The Minister did, in fact, ‘call in’ the Russian ambassador, as stated by the Taoiseach”.

This is not technically true, but that’s ok.

It is not a distortion of the common understanding of words to say that the Minister “called in” the ambassador, when in literal terms, staff at his department contacted the Russian embassy to arrange a meeting.

Last Thursday, Flanagan told the Dáil they had done this “on my direct instructions”, and the Department of Foreign Affairs confirmed to FactCheck that the meeting on 27 September was initiated by the Department, and did take place in its offices at Iveagh House.

What the Taoiseach claimed Flanagan did after calling in the ambassador

  • Charlie Flanagan “left the ambassador in no uncertain terms [sic] as to the way this country feels” about the crisis in Syria
  • Charlie Flanagan “made it perfectly clear our absolute disgust and abhorrence of [sic] the bombing of a UN humanitarian convoy going to Aleppo”, and other matters
  • Charlie Flanagan “left the ambassador in no uncertain position as to the way this country feels about the catastrophic humanitarian catastrophe” in Syria
  • Charlie Flanagan “made it perfectly clear to the Russian ambassador just how strongly this country feels about what’s happened and happening in Aleppo”

We know that there were two meetings with the Russian ambassador, in the period leading up to the Taoiseach’s claims on 4 October: on 27 September and 10 October.

And we know that Charlie Flanagan was present at neither of them.

275 Russian Ambassador 90332629 2 Maxim Peshkov, the Ambassador of Russia to Ireland. Source: RollingNews.ie

The Taoiseach’s spokesperson told FactCheck:

On the instruction of Minister Flanagan, the Russian ambassador met with a senior official in the Department of Foreign Affairs, which is standard practice.

(In fact, the ambassador met with two senior officials, as confirmed to FactCheck by the Department of Foreign Affairs).

So, in fact, the meeting [on 27 September] was initiated by Minister Flanagan and his concerns were conveyed to the ambassador. The Taoiseach has not made any claim at odds with this.

It appears to be true that the meeting was initiated by Flanagan, and that his concerns were conveyed to the ambassador.

But what the Taoiseach actually claimed was something different and much more specific.

The Taoiseach specifically stated that Flanagan conveyed those concerns to the ambassador on 27 September, and that Flanagan “made it perfectly clear to the Russian ambassador just how strongly this country feels”, and so on.

Since Flanagan wasn’t at the meeting, he could not and did not do so, unless you consider that since his officials were there at his instruction, their saying these things to the ambassador is tantamount to Flanagan himself saying these things.

There is a certain logic to this, but it would require a serious and untenable distortion of the meaning of words.

It would require accepting that at a meeting on 27 September, Charlie Flanagan “left the ambassador in no uncertain position as to the way this country feels”, when it was Flanagan’s officials who “left the ambassador in no uncertain position”, and Flanagan was not actually there.

Conclusion

It appears to be the case that Flanagan, to all intents and purposes, did “call in” the ambassador, although we know this is not technically true.

But subsequently, he did not do (and could not have done) what the Taoiseach repeatedly claimed he did, in his comments on 4 October.

For those reasons, we rate Enda Kenny’s claims Mostly FALSE.

What’s more, the difference between a minister telling an ambassador things in person, and a minister’s staff telling an ambassador things on the minister’s behalf, is not a trivial one, or just a matter of semantics.

This is especially the case in the sphere of diplomacy, and even more so when it comes to delivering criticism to an ambassador, during a period of military conflict.

So what the Taoiseach claimed in the Dáil on 4 October was Mostly FALSE in a substantive way, and not merely on a technical basis.

FactCheck asked the Russian Embassy and Ministry of Foreign Affairs for their account of these matters, but they did not respond.

TheJournal.ie’s FactCheck is a signatory to the International Fact-Checking Network’s Code of Principles. You can read it here.

For information on how FactCheck works, what the verdicts mean, and how you can take part, check out our Reader’s Guide here

About the author:

Dan MacGuill

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