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Explainer: What does it mean to expel an ambassador?

The Dáil is debating a motion this morning to expel Israel’s ambassador.

THE DÁIL IS debating a motion this morning to expel the Israeli ambassador from Ireland in response to the country’s ongoing bombing of Gaza and the humanitarian crisis there.

The motion expresses “revulsion at the continuing collective punishment being meted out to civilians in Gaza by the Israeli government”, as well as condemning the “barbaric attack on Israel on October 7″ and expressing alarm at attacks on and killings of Palestinians in the West Bank since October 7.

The motion, tabled by the Social Democrats, calls on the Government to withdraw diplomatic status from the Israeli Ambassador to Ireland, Dana Erlich, and to push for the imposition of EU-wide economic sanctions on Israel.

Sinn Féin, the Labour Party and People Before Profit have all said they will support the motion, but the Government plans to table a counter motion.

But what does expelling an ambassador entail and how often does it happen in Ireland and elsewhere?

Has it happened before?

While Ireland has previously taken moves to expel less senior diplomats, it has never taken the “very serious” step of sending a state’s ambassador home, according to Donnacha Ó Beacháin, associate professor of politics at Dublin City University.

“It’s something we don’t see often in Ireland, certainly. There’s various kinds of stages to expressing displeasure with a country or an embassy. So for example, at the very bottom of that hierarchy, you have recalling your ambassador for consultation.

“This would mean asking the Irish ambassador to come back from whichever country is in question. That’s a signal that there is unhappiness with what’s going on.”

The next step to express displeasure at a country’s actions is by expelling a diplomat. These are lower-ranked figures in an embassy and expelling them is something Ireland does have form in, Ó Beacháin said.

Most recently, Ireland expelled four Russian diplomats last year over their country’s actions in its invasion of Ukraine, but there are other examples.

“We expelled three Soviet diplomats in 1983, who were allegedly operating a spy ring from the Stillorgan shopping centre of all places,” Ó Beacháin said.

In 2010, Israeli diplomats were expelled after it was discovered that Mossad, the intelligence agency of Israel, had used fake Irish passports as part of a mission to assassinate a high-ranking Hamas figure in Dubai.

But Ó Beacháin noted: “We’ve never gone further than that. In the Troubles,  in 1972, after Bloody Sunday, there was a huge swelling of revulsion against the British government, but we didn’t we didn’t expel the British ambassador.

“We did recall our own ambassador but he stayed away for only two months really. He went back to London when the Northern Ireland government at Stormont was abolished.

“So even when our own country was in question, when relations were at their worst with our nearest neighbour, we didn’t go to the extent of expelling an ambassador. So it is a very big step.”

Why has Ireland not expelled ambassadors before?

Ó Beacháin believes it’s rarely utilised as the work of any embassy is often taken up with helping its country’s own citizens.

If a country expels an ambassador, it could expect the favour to be returned in kind.

Ó Beacháin said ambassadors needed to be thought of less as a “signal of friendship” and instead as ways to “establish basic lines of communication”.

“A major function of having diplomatic relations is just helping Irish people who have gotten into trouble abroad,” he said. 

In the case of Israel and Gaza, this may risk the expulsion of the Irish ambassador in Israel.

This could, Ó Beacháin believes, make efforts to ensure the safety of Irish citizens trapped in Gaza more uncertain.

‘Unsavoury regimes’

Ó Beacháin noted that Ireland has embassies and diplomatic relations with “unsavoury governments and regimes” across the world.

“There are dictatorships which don’t allow people to organise freely and which deny civil liberties, but they have representation in Dublin.

“So, if you set the precedent that we are unhappy with a particular government and you expel their ambassador, you establish a precedent which is very difficult to move away from.”

Ireland’s reluctance to resort to expulsion has been consistent, from dealing with Germany during the Second World War to the Soviet Union invading a number of countries following the war.

“After the Soviet Union occupied Eastern Europe, we had several governments in exile in London which claimed to be the legitimate government. And our government in Dublin continued corresponding with these for some time, more out of politeness than anything else,” Ó Beacháin said. 

“But they quickly realised that the governments on the ground were the authorities who had real power and they had to establish some relations with them.”

What can expelling an ambassador achieve?

The safety of the approximately 40 Irish citizens in Gaza was raised by Social Democrats’ Foreign Affairs spokesperson Gary Gannon, who yesterday echoed claims made by People Before Profit TD Paul Murphy Israeli government’s refusal to allow their exit was a form of “punishment” because the Irish state had called for a ceasefire.

However, a number of Irish citizens are leaving Gaza this morning.

Gannon said yesterday that Ireland cannot “stand by and be complicit” with what is happening in Gaza.

Ó Beacháin believes an important factor any country must weigh up when deciding whether to expel an ambassador is what support the move will have internationally – and whether it can alter the offending state’s behaviour.

If this was the collective response on behalf of the entire European Union, it could send a very strong signal. But one solitary country acting alone is questionable whether it will in any way modify behaviour.

“It’s a response to a popular feeling that something should be done, but it stems from a feeling of impotence, a feeling that people are unable to do something.”

It would also mean new territory in Ireland’s relations with Israel, and potentially with other states as the bar would be “lowered” for what it takes to expel an ambassador. 

However, Ó Beacháin believes expelling an ambassador does leave open the possibility for still retaining diplomats in an embassy and thereby maintain some lines of communication.

“In theory, if your embassy is big enough then it could happen but Ireland’s embassies are traditionally quite small,” he explained.

The danger is for a country to get into a “tit-for-tat” row with another state in expelling personnel.

“We’d risk running out of diplomats very quickly,” he added.