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Tuesday 3 October 2023 Dublin: 14°C
Anton Novoderezhkin/Getty
'Ireland needs to invest in its neutral status - is expelling a Russian diplomat the best way?'
Security expert Tom Clonan raises concerns about Ireland’s security and intelligence capacity and the strategic importance of our neutrality.

THE DECISION BY the Irish government to expel one Russian diplomat from Ireland following a nerve agent attack on Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the UK raises interesting questions about Ireland’s security and intelligence capacity, along with our perceived status as a neutral state.

According to Tanaiste Simon Coveney, the decision to expel a member of the Russian Embassy in Dublin was based on a “security-service assessment” conducted after a European Council summit in Brussels concluded that the Russian Federation was “highly likely” to have been responsible for the nerve agent attack in Salisbury.

Vladimir Putin has vehemently denied responsibility for the attack and the Russian administration has repeatedly called for evidence of their alleged involvement to be made available to them for independent review.  It is believed that the Irish government is relying on information provided to it by the British intelligence services to the effect that the Russian government was directly involved in this appalling attack.

On the balance of probabilities, Russia is likely to have been involved in Skripal’s death. When it comes to security and defence intelligence, the past behaviour of state actors is a highly reliable indicator of current practice and operations in the field.  In terms of poisoning ex-FSB agents, Russia has ‘form’ in this regard. In 2006, Alexander Litvinenko was assassinated in London – poisoned by a highly radioactive substance, polonium-210.

A chilling echo of a ‘state signature’ assassination

It would have been much easier to assassinate Litvinenko by way of shooting or even a ‘hit and run’ car accident. The manner in which he was assassinated led to a lingering, agonising death, with the use of polonium-210 a clear message that the Russian state was involved.  The use of a nerve agent in the assault on Skripal and his daughter contains within it a chilling echo of that ‘state signature’ – an explicit and clear message to all former FSB operatives that disloyalty to Putin’s regime means certain death, irrespective of the passage of time, asylum status or refuge in a relatively ‘safe’ jurisdiction such as the UK.

Hence the decision by so many EU member states – along with the United States – to expel Russian diplomats en masse to send a strong signal to the Kremlin on their “affront to the international rules-based system on which we all depend for our security and wellbeing”.

What makes Ireland unique among all of these nations taking such action is that we are the only state within the European Union or the western alliance of nations to which we belong, that cannot gather, generate, collate or analyse primary intelligence.

Ireland does not have the capacity to engage in meaningful ‘humint’ or human intelligence (spying) operations based on our own lack of resources. Neither can we engage in electronic eavesdropping – or ‘sig-int’, signals intelligence – using surveillance methods referred to as ‘national technical means’ in other EU states.

Our intelligence infrastructure has been scaled back

An Garda Siochana is the primary intelligence agency within Ireland.  It is, and always has been, the prime mover in intelligence operations within the state. During the Troubles, when there was modest investment in our policing, intelligence and military infrastructure here to counter the paramilitary threat posed by both republican and loyalist groupings, Ireland was – briefly – in a position to generate real-time intelligence.

In turn, Ireland, despite its ‘neutral’ status, was able to leverage this intelligence through international intelligence clearing facilities to trade for information and intelligence with other European states including Britain.

Ironically however, as part of the ‘peace dividend’ of the Good Friday Agreement, there has been a dramatic scaling back in our intelligence and security infrastructure over the last two decades. Ireland has not been in a position to generate meaningful intelligence – apart from routine policing matters – in over a decade.

Ireland, as a state, is now a net recipient of intelligence. As a consequence, we only receive intelligence that our European neighbours choose to reveal to us and only when it suits them and their intelligence, diplomatic and political agendas.

This is the context in which the Irish government is ‘informed’ about the latest developments involving Russia and the Russian Embassy here. Ireland does not have the capacity to competently assess or independently interrogate or verify any intelligence given to us by the UK or any other state. As a consequence, Ireland needs to tread very cautiously around information given to us by UK intelligence services whose sole mission is to serve the political agenda of Foreign Minister Boris Johnson and Prime Minister May.

Russia has been provocative

Based on previous behaviour and ‘form’, international relations between the US and Russia – with an extremely hawkish John Bolton as new Trump’s National Security Advisor – are likely to further deteriorate. Russia’s behaviour within Europe and along her borders – including Irish controlled airspace – has been provocative in recent years.

Russia has used hard power and military force along with cyber operations in both overt and covert hybrid operations to raise tensions within Europe and to test and probe her weak defences. Concurrently, Vladimir Putin has raised military spending in Russia to levels previously only seen during the Soviet era.

As we enter this turbulent period in international relations, I believe Ireland needs to seriously invest in its neutral status. We are very highly regarded internationally and are seen as an independent, non-partisan and neutral state. Our diaspora, diplomatic staff and families and the men and women of our Defence Forces have done most of the heavy lifting in this regard, ensuring that Ireland and her citizens enjoy a high level of respect and freedom of movement internationally.

Strategic importance of Ireland’s neutral status

As Europe, the United States and Russia edge closer towards proxy wars and mass propaganda operations – across traditional and digital platforms, Ireland needs to invest in a proper intelligence agency. Such an intelligence agency, I believe, would best remain within an Garda Siochana – but with closer ties and greater investment within military intelligence and the Defence Forces’ considerable IT resources.

Given international trends, I believe that our neutral status is currently of the most vital national and strategic importance. It is also of vital importance that we invest in our modest security, defence and intelligence infrastructure in order to meaningfully vindicate that neutral status.

Dr Tom Clonan is a former Captain in the Irish armed forces. He is a security analyst and academic, lecturing in the School of Media in DIT. You can follow him on Twitter here.  

  • Article image show participants in a parade marking St Patrick’s Day in Moscow last weekend. Pic: Anton Novoderezhkin/TASS via Getty Images.

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