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Podcast explores the curious case of Irishman caught up in the world of Russian espionage

In a case of ‘wrong place at the wrong time’, Dublin man Derek Conlon was caught in the centre of international espionage.

Conlon pictured in the piano bar in London's Mayfair.
Conlon pictured in the piano bar in London's Mayfair.
Image: Sky News

“WHEN HE DRANK his cappuccino, he crossed the world into espionage and geopolitical tension,” says Robert Mulhern, a documentary producer at Sky News. 

His words could double as the opening line of a Cold War thriller novel but he’s speaking about the Dublin man who became a suspect in the poisoning of an ex-Russian agent in London in 2006. 

Derek Conlon arrived at the five star Millennium Hotel in the upscale Mayfair district of London on 1 November 2006 ahead of his scheduled gig in the hotel’s piano bar. 

After finishing his coffee, he set up his stall for the evening and began his performance. 

But a short while beforehand, the cup from which he drank his coffee from was also used to serve tea to ex-KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko, who at the time was unaware the cup had been poisoned with a deadly radioactive chemical known as Polonium-210 by Russian agents. 

Litvinenko would succumb to the effects of the poisoning 23 days later.

But it was the high polonium readings that showed up in tests carried out on Conlon that is the focus of Mulhern’s Polonium and the Piano Player podcast. 

“Alexander was working for the British secret service MI6 at that time, he was targeted by two agents of the Russian state [...] in the five-star Millennium Hotel in London’s Mayfair,” he explained to TheJournal.ie

“They poured the nuclear poison Polonium-210 into his tea, probably one of the deadliest substances on earth – a single gram of this material, something no bigger than a grain of sand would have the potential to kill one million people. They used a diluted form, poured it into his tea in the piano bar.

“Then where Conlon came into it, he was the piano player in the hotel on that day. He stumbles into this scene and orders a cup of coffee before he starts his shift, and the cup he’s given the coffee in is the same cup the nuclear poison was poured into so it had readings that scientists call a full-scale deflection – so it’s off the scale.

“That was the moment we start from and look at the journey of Conlon.” 

A UK report into the Litvinenko murder found that Russian President Vladimir Putin “probably approved” the murder of the ex-KGB agent, a claim the Kremlin dismissed as “a joke”.

In a 2016 interview with The Ryan Tubridy Show on RTÉ Radio 1, Conlon said he felt “lucky” to have survived the events of that day in 2006. 

“It had spread all over the bar, over the piano, my PA system, my clothes,” he said. “Nobody knew anything until a couple of days later when there was police tape across the door.”

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Mulhern suggests it is Conlon’s quiet lifestyle as an unassuming musician touring the London music scene and the Soviet background of Litvinenko that makes this story so interesting. 

“Part of the charm of the story is that Conlon and Litvinenko were pretty much the same age, Conlon’s 57 now and both characters would have grown up around the same time in very different worlds – Litvinenko in the closed world of communism in the Soviet Union and Conlon in Dublin,” he said. 

“Conlon would have grown up around the corner from Bono, he was a talented musician and his whole world growing up was music and entertainment. He would have headlined at live events in Dublin when U2 were coming up. His only interest would have been music and the world of music.

“He certainly wouldn’t have had interest in the Cold War and what was going on between Russia and America… this is two worlds coming into collision over this coffee cup in London.

“And then Conlon turn ups with a mega reading of polonium so he becomes both a suspect and a victim and he sort of has nowhere to go.”

The second episode of the four-part podcast series from Sky News’s Storycast team was released on Monday, with the remaining two set for release over the next two weeks. 

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