Tuesday, 27 March 2018
Government Response to Salisbury Attack: Statements
I want to begin by expressing my shock and sadness at Sunday’s devastating fire in a shopping centre in the Russian city of Kemerovo, which claimed so many lives. The fact that a number of children were among the victims is particularly tragic and upsetting. Our thoughts and condolences are with the victims, their loved ones and the Russian community here in Ireland at this very difficult time.
Separately, on 4 March Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, were found unconscious on a public bench in Salisbury town centre in England. They were taken to hospital, where they remain in a critical condition from which they may never recover. Investigators discovered that they had been exposed to a nerve agent, traces of which were found in a local restaurant and pub. A police officer who went to their aid was also exposed to the poison and became seriously ill. He was only recently discharged from hospital. Over 130 civilians were potentially exposed, with 50 people being assessed in hospital.
On 12 March, Prime Minister May told the House of Commons that the Skripals were poisoned with a military-grade nerve agent of a type developed by Russia, part of a group of nerve agents known as Novichok. Her Government had concluded that there were only two plausible explanations for what happened. It was either a direct act by the Russian State against the United Kingdom or the Russian Government had lost control of this deadly nerve agent. The Russian Government was asked to provide an explanation for what had occurred and to make an immediate complete disclosure of the Novichok programme to the Organisation of the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, OPCW.
On 14 March, the Prime Minister told the House of Commons that Russia had not offered a credible explanation nor had it provided a reason for having an undeclared chemical weapons programme in contravention of international law. As a result, the Government of the United Kingdom had concluded that the Russian State was highly likely to be behind the attempted murders. The Prime Minister announced a series of immediate actions, including the expulsion of 23 Russian diplomats identified as undeclared intelligence officers.
Since then, the international community has rallied to the UK’s side. On 15 March the leaders of France, Germany and the United States issued a joint statement with the United Kingdom in which they agreed with the British conclusion that there was no plausible alternative explanation. They noted that Russia further underlined its responsibility by its failure to address the legitimate request for information by the United Kingdom Government. They called on Russia to address all questions related to the attack and to provide a full and complete disclosure of the Novichok programme to the OPCW.
Intensive briefings were provided by the United Kingdom at senior EU official level and to EU foreign ministers, including myself, at the Foreign Affairs Council on 19 March. Last Thursday, Prime Minister May explained to the European Council the basis on which her Government had come to its assessment. Her presentation was compelling. Having listened to it, and to the views of other Member States with significant security services that are in a position to verify what she said, the leaders of every member state of the EU, including those with historically close ties with Russia, unanimously agreed with the United Kingdom’s assessment that it was highly likely that Russia was responsible and that no plausible alternative explanation existed. The Taoiseach played an active part in what was a lengthy and substantive debate.
In the wake of these shocking events, it is essential all EU member states stand in unqualified solidarity with the United Kingdom. The use of chemical weapons, including the use of any toxic chemicals as weapons, is particularly shocking and abhorrent. The reckless attack in Salisbury was the first known use of a nerve agent in Europe since the Second World War. It was not just an attack against one country but an affront to the international rules-based system on which we all depend for our security and well-being. It is right that Ireland should stand in full solidarity with the UK, our closest neighbour, with which we share so much and with which we have, in many ways, a shared home in the European Union.
The European Council agreed to recall the EU ambassador to Russia for consultations. While the expulsion of diplomats is entirely a matter for national decision, it was agreed that member states should co-ordinate as far as possible. Yesterday, 16 EU member states announced that they would expel Russian diplomats. This is a clear majority of member states. It includes east and west, north and south, big and small, NATO and non-NATO. The United States, Canada, Norway, Australia and other countries with which we have excellent relations have taken similar steps for the same reasons. In total 100 Russian diplomats have been expelled. President Tusk has said that additional measures within a common EU framework cannot be excluded in the coming days and weeks.
Following an urgent assessment conducted by the security services and relevant Departments chaired by the Secretary General of my Department, I briefed the Cabinet this morning on my intended course of action. Following that briefing, the Secretary General met the Russian Ambassador and informed him that the accreditation of a member of his staff with diplomatic status is to be terminated in line with the provisions of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. The individual in question is required to leave the jurisdiction within a short specified timeframe.
I am aware that there are those who will not agree with this decision. It is true that we are not in a position to verify independently the United Kingdom’s assessment of responsibility for Salisbury. However, I underline that the evidence advanced by the UK, which has been confirmed by other key countries, has convinced all 27 other EU leaders to act. Some people have drawn analogies with the question of weapons of mass destruction and the Iraq war. There is no gainsaying that a weaponised nerve agent was used against the Skripals. Whereas Iraq divided the EU, this issue has actually united countries.
There are those who will say we should have waited until the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons concluded its investigation. The OPCW is not investigating the circumstances of the poisoning or responsibility for it. The United Kingdom has notified the OPCW about the case of the nerve agent and has invited it to verify its scientific analysis and findings.
Russia has offered several alternative - and varying - narratives of the events in Salisbury and has posed a number of rhetorical questions. To put it mildly, none of them offers a plausible alternative explanation. It is easy to recall previous instances of unacknowledged unacceptable behaviour which were uncovered bit by bit. It is also important that the great majority of Ireland's closest international partners, inside and outside the EU, have chosen to act as we have, that is, in solidarity with the United Kingdom. Not to be on their side would put us in a strange place. As I said, we have a uniquely close relationship with the United Kingdom. I was not willing to support the idea that 16 other member states of the European Union would act and Ireland would sit on its hands. However, I emphasise that the decision was not just based on political and diplomatic factors. I want to make clear that the assessment included the full range of factors, including our own national security, and relied on the advice of those with the greatest relevant expertise in each area.
Some have said that our decision somehow breaches our neutrality or undermines our foreign policy. This is a complete red herring unless one interprets neutrality as never taking a side on any issue. Ireland has never been neutral when it comes to defending the rule of law and international security or, for that matter, promoting disarmament. Other countries which are not members of NATO have taken similar action to Ireland's. As members of the European Union, while we retain our national freedom of action in such matters, our default position must be one of solidarity and unity.
Finally, some have argued that this House should have been consulted in advance of our decision or indeed should have voted on it. This is completely out of line with international practice. Nor is it what has happened in previous expulsions of foreign diplomats from Ireland. There are times when the State needs to act swiftly and in line with our Constitution. We had a choice to make: either to act in solidarity with our closest neighbour or to do nothing. We had an obligation to act and to send a clear signal that what happened in Salisbury is totally unacceptable. We recognise it is important to maintain good relations with Russia, but we needed to respond to this issue. I am glad it has been possible for me to brief the Opposition parties this afternoon. I am also pleased to have the chance to place on the record of the House the reasons for the actions the Government has taken today.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on this issue on behalf of the Fianna Fáil Party and I thank the Tánaiste for his detailed and considered contribution. I wish to begin, as the Tánaiste has done, by offering my condolences to the Russian people, in particular the families of those affected by the fire in a shopping centre in the Russian city of Kemerovo. Our thoughts and prayers are with all of them and the Russian people in the wake of such a tragic loss of life.
The attack in Salisbury on Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia on 4 March was a despicable act. Having taken into account the EU Council's conclusion that it is "highly likely that the Russian Federation is responsible and that there is no plausible alternative explanation", and following my discussions with the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade on this issue, we as a party support the Government's decision to expel one Russian diplomat in response to the Salisbury attack. We believe this action is appropriate and proportionate and sends a clear message that no country is above international law. It is important to state at this juncture that our support of the Government's decision should not be interpreted as a slight to the Russian people. Many Russian people have made Ireland their home and we have no desire or reason to isolate or alienate them. As a party we support the Government's response, stand in solidarity with our nearest neighbour and are united with other EU member states, including Germany, France, Finland and Sweden, as well as countries such as America and Australia in sending a very strong message to the Russian Federation that the use of chemical weapons is abhorrent and will not be tolerated. Our decision to support the Government on this matter was not taken lightly, however. From the outset, my party and I called on the Government to ensure it conducted a thorough and objective assessment of the allegations and a review of the operation of the Russian Embassy in Dublin. It is imperative that every effort is made to establish facts and to move forward on that basis and my party and I will continue to advocate for this.
While some others on the Opposition benches do not support this decision, and I respect that, and see it as threat to our neutrality, I believe this decision in no way affects our military neutrality. Moreover, we should not shy away from using the tools at our disposal to demonstrate our revulsion at the attack in Salisbury, which I believe was the first offensive use of a nerve agent in Europe since the Second World War. The reality is that our military neutrality should never mean moral neutrality, nor does it mean that we must be voiceless or overlook what is a serious and flagrant breach of international law by a country that is becoming progressively more belligerent and intolerant of international norms and which has on several occasions violated Irish-controlled airspace. In recent years we have witnessed the annexation of Crimea, the destabilisation of eastern Ukraine and alleged interference in elections in other countries, as well as support for the Assad regime in Syria, all of which points to an increasingly confrontational Kremlin determined to advance its own dubious agenda, divide nations, disrupt international norms and undermine European values and ideals. The attack in Salisbury is another example of Russia's efforts in this regard.
We are in no doubt about the gravity of the actions taken by Ireland and other States in expelling Russian diplomats. However, defending the rule of law and safeguarding citizens should always be a priority, and the unity shown within the EU should be commended. Our party, in particular our party leader, Deputy Micheál Martin, has never shied away from criticising Russia and its grievous actions. While we support the co-ordinated action taken by members of the European Union in response to the attack in Salisbury, we have long called for the EU and the international community to take a more robust approach to Russia's transgressions. Despite the events of recent weeks and the actions taken by Ireland and other states, it is imperative we do not close the door completely on the prospect of co-operation and engagement with Russia. While doing all we can to compel Russia to abide by international rules and norms, we must also continue in our efforts to try to build trust and improve relations with Russia. As a party, we are committed to continuing engagement with Russia and we believe that it is in our collective interest to do so.
I sincerely hope that recent events may provide Russia with pause for thought and act as a catalyst for positive change in Russian relations in order that we can move past this situation and sustain cordial and progressive relations with Russia and its people into the future.
I wish to begin by making it crystal clear that the use of chemical weapons in any circumstance is completely unacceptable and those who engage in their use need to be charged and brought before the appropriate international courts. Ireland must also protect its people from any outside threat. The expulsion of Russian diplomats from Ireland operating as hostile intelligence officers is a more than suitable action to be pursued if they are behind the attack in England on Sergei and Yulia Skripal. However, the difficulty I have is that we have yet to be given any independently-verified evidence to underpin the decision to expel a Russian diplomat from Ireland in response to Salisbury. Such a significant and dramatic Irish foreign policy decision should not be dictated by the concerns of a foreign security agency but by Irish security and informed analysis. Sinn Féin therefore does not support the Government's decision to expel a Russian diplomat and we believe this is a further erosion of Ireland's neutrality and independent foreign policy.
Last week, during the pre-European Council statements in this Chamber, the Taoiseach said what happened in Salisbury "was a reprehensible and loathsome attack" and he condemned "the use of chemical weapons and assassinations wherever they happen and whoever commits them".
This was welcome and I fully support the Taoiseach in this regard.
Yet on day one of the European Council meeting in Brussels, having listened to Theresa May he told reporters that he agreed with the UK’s assessment that it is highly likely Russian authorities were behind the Salisbury attack and he was undertaking a review of the Russian embassy’s activities. He provided no evidence for this policy shift. We do not know what compelling information the British Prime Minister gave, but it seems clear to me that Irish foreign policy is now being decided around tables in Brussels and not in Dublin. This completely undermines Irish neutrality and our independent foreign policy.
I have repeatedly spoken out against the increased federalisation and militarisation of the EU and its so-called Common Foreign and Security Policy. This continues to blur and undermine our neutrality and sovereignty. It will worry many in Ireland that this decision seems to have been based on information emanating from a British security service. Britain’s spies, agents and security operatives have a long and bloody record in Ireland. They have been involved in a dirty war and linked to countless killings of Irish citizens right across this island, a horrific legacy that they have so far refused to acknowledge and which continues to impact on the victims and survivors to this very day.
Considering that the Taoiseach has decided to base Irish foreign policy on the information a British security service provided to him about the death of one of its double agents, perhaps it is well past time for him also to ask it to release the files and information it has on the Dublin and Monaghan bombings which killed 32 Irish citizens, along with one French citizen and one Italian citizen who were living in Ireland. They were carried out by the UVF with the full assistance of the British security services. There have been three Dáil motions calling on the British Government to release the files it has on these bombings, yet it continues to ignore, stall and deny its knowledge and involvement in these attacks.
Now it would appear that we are letting the same shadowy security agencies give direction to Irish foreign policy. These are the same securocrats who ran agents in loyalist paramilitary organisations, like Gary Haggerty whose case went before the courts in Belfast recently and has revealed his part in 202 criminal offences including at least five known murders. We are expected to rely on and trust the information coming from a foreign security service that has been involved in countless murders of Irish people and whose information led to the illegal Iraq war and the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians.
We are expected to trust Theresa May and Boris Johnson on this issue, despite the fact that Russian oligarchs and their associates have registered donations of more than £820,000 to the Conservative Party since she became Prime Minister and he became Foreign Secretary. The British Government said the Salisbury attack was the first offensive use of a chemical agent in Europe since the Second World War. This will come as a bit of a surprise to many former Irish republican prisoners in Long Kesh who were gassed by chemicals that the British Government secretly authorised for use in prisons. Many have since developed cancer and some have died from all sorts of diseases linked to the use of chemicals.
It shows complete disdain for this Parliament and for Ireland’s independence that the Taoiseach can announce this policy shift to reporters in Brussels, but keep Deputies and the public in the dark. I do not know who used chemical nerve agent on the Skripals, but I do know that the Irish Government’s response will negatively impact on this country and its people as it undermines our neutrality and our independent foreign policy.
I join with others in stating very clearly that the use of chemical weapons cannot and should not ever be tolerated. A number of issues surrounding the expulsion of a Russian diplomat by the Government need to be highlighted. Last week we saw the Taoiseach once again announce a shift in Government policy to the media before he came in here to make the same announcement to the Oireachtas. Today in the Dáil the Taoiseach said it was highly likely that Russia was behind the nerve agent attack in Britain.
While expressions of solidarity with Britain are appropriate considering that a nerve agent was used in its territory, involving Ireland in this issue by expelling Russian diplomats as an act of solidarity with Britain is a clear move away from Irish neutrality and our independent foreign policy. In recent times Ireland has only expelled diplomats in instances where there have been transgressions within our jurisdiction, with the expulsion of Israeli and Russian diplomats for forging Irish passports.
The people of Ireland need to know the reasons for the expulsion of this diplomat because they want to know if it can be justified or if the Fine Gael Government is expelling an official of one state at the behest of the British state, a state whose government continues to withhold information on the Dublin and Monaghan bombings. The people need to know the truth because it looks like we are inserting ourselves in a geopolitical row on the basis of hearsay from the same British intelligence services which reported that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
If our security services have information on espionage being run from the Russian embassy here why were we not told of this before the European Council meeting? Why was no action taken to expel such persons before then? Politicians and the public need to be informed on these issues. I am sure that no one would have any problem whatsoever with expelling a person from this State who was a threat to our national security. However, I would caution that if this is not the case in this instance, we should not give in to the hyperbole being pushed by the British Tory Party, but should instead chart our own foreign policy based on facts and a level headed approach.
Like the Tánaiste, I too would like to begin by expressing sadness and empathy on my behalf and that of the Labour Party for the people of the Russian city Kemerovo on the appalling tragedy they have endured in recent days.
The attack in Salisbury on 4 March with a rare chemical weapon is a shocking and worrying development in international affairs. The nature of the attack is deeply disturbing for the UK and all countries that abide by international rules and norms. Given that this was the first use of a chemical weapon in Europe since the Second World War and due to the security sensitives of the investigation and the reality of the world of espionage, it also means that we do not have clear sight of the evidence or all the facts.
Some three weeks on we do not know how the attack was carried out or the exact nature of the chemical used. That information may never be publicly confirmed. The British Government has said it believes there is no plausible alternative or explanation for the attack other than that it was perpetrated by the Russian Federation. In other words, it is highly likely that Russia did it.
While it has been postulated that the agent used was from the Novichok family of chemical weapons, that has not been confirmed. From what we know, that family of nerve agents was developed in the secrecy of the Soviet Union in the 1970s. It is described as one of the deadliest nerve agents ever made and extremely potent. That such an agent was used in an English town to target a former double agent is a new departure. This was an extra-territorial assassination carried out by chemical weapon.
The facts to date are that former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were targeted with this powerful nerve agent. They are currently in an induced coma and it is unclear if they will ever recover. A detective sergeant who was first on the scene was also hospitalised and, thankfully, has since been discharged. A total of 51 people were hospitalised or treated after the incident and the British Prime Minister said a total of 131 people were exposed to potential harm. The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons is now carrying out an investigation and tests into the type of agent used. It will take two to three weeks to complete the laboratory analysis, but that will not determine who was responsible or the circumstances surrounding this attack.
After extensive briefings and discussions by leaders at the EU Council last week, the 28 member states unanimously agreed to support the UK position. Following that meeting, the EU sent a strong and clear message when we withdrew the EU ambassador to Russia for a period of four weeks. That was a robust response to a totally unacceptable attack on an EU member state.
Within the Opposition, I was alone on Friday in supporting the Government's stance in Brussels to stand in solidarity with the UK. It is not credible that on this issue Ireland would stand alone of the 28 EU members, including Sweden, which is neutral and Greece and Cyprus, which have close friendships and economic ties with Russia. The EU has now withdrawn its diplomatic representative and Russia knows where the EU as a collective stands on this matter. We should be slow to contemplate additional activity that would escalate the matter further unless our own circumstances warrant it. I regard with scepticism the efforts of the Taoiseach's spinners late last week to overemphasise his role on the issue at the EU Council meeting.
There appears to be a clear effort to align Ireland with the western alliance in what it must be acknowledged is a new departure for Irish foreign policy. Referring to this attack as taking place on EU soil presents a federal view of our Union that is not real. The EU is also not a mutual defence pact like NATO. For this reason, I think the action taken today by the Government is problematic. It is an unprecedented step for Ireland to move to expel foreign diplomats for actions that occurred in another country when a proportionate response has been already taken at EU level. This a risky move for Ireland as a country as we have traditionally been non-aligned.
An analysis of what has happened since last Friday would lead one to believe that the Government made its decision to expel diplomats on Friday after the EU Council and it used the weekend to collate the necessary information and intelligence. The decision of the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade to recommend the expulsion of a Russian diplomat today was taken without any consultation or pre-brief with the Opposition, save, potentially, with Fianna Fáil. I have made it clear that I believe Ireland should not expel foreign diplomats, save for activities that occur on Irish soil or that impact directly on Irish citizens or our security. Ambassadors and diplomats are usually expelled for two reasons: to signal displeasure with the sending country's policies or to signal displeasure with the particular person. An assessment was carried out by the security services and relevant Departments in the past 72 hours. This has been used to justify the expulsion of an unnamed Russian diplomat. This decision should not have been rushed or taken lightly. Owing to the nature of the assessment, the evidence has not been provided to the Opposition. However, we do know that the decision was taken exclusively as an act of solidarity with the UK and so it is not clear why the security assessment was required. The expulsion is not, as I understand, as a result of Russian activities in Ireland. There was no mention of this up to the time of the appalling events of Salisbury.
There has been significant media commentary in Ireland in recent weeks about Russian activities in Ireland, an issue about which I have already voiced my concerns and on which I have posed questions to the Tánaiste, including possible espionage and surveillance of technology companies in Ireland; the plans of the Russian Federation to build a large extension to its embassy and to bring in builders from Russia to carry out the work; and the threat from cyber-attacks, whether from Russia or elsewhere. As a country, we do not have a well-developed security apparatus. I have made known my views on this over some considerable time. I regard the policing review that is currently under way as an opportunity to separate normal policing in Ireland from security analysis. I hope that will be done. Our capacity to do proper security assessments is limited. We over-depend on the assessments provided to us by foreign agencies. Regardless of perception of our closeness with any country, a foreign security agency will act in the interests of its country, first, last and in between and information that we get will be conditioned by that imperative. The greatest risk from espionage now is online, with sophisticated digital tools and cyber-attacks. Ireland must be prepared for this. We must be prepared for attacks on our infrastructure and the use of this country for attacks on others.
Withdrawing and expelling diplomats is a serious matter. It is often the first step towards further escalation. I would counsel further consideration of this matter. It is likely that Russia will now expel an Irish diplomat. As promised, the Government must now carry out a full security assessment and lay out in the clearest terms possible what that assessment unveils so that as a collective we can make decisions that are in the interests of our security and our people.
What is happening here, in my opinion, is extremely dangerous. Ireland is being bounced into joining a dangerous ratcheting up of tension on a world scale on the side of the UK, the US and NATO, with Russia on the other side. This is part of a process of undermining the nominal neutrality that Ireland is meant to have and it comes two weeks after a Fine Gael MEP paper calling for a redefinition of neutrality, a weakening of the triple lock and opening a discussion about joining a mutual defence pact. This is being done on the basis of no evidence. We are being asked to accept the word of British intelligence on this matter. Seumas Milne, Jeremy Corbyn's spokesperson, was savaged in the right-wing British media last week for having the temerity to comment that the history of British intelligence is problematic. In reality, that is a gross under-statement given the role of British intelligence in this country in terms of collusion with loyalist paramilitaries and in Britain in terms of its role in the miners' strike, about which Seumas Milne wrote, and its role in terms of the dodgy dossier and bouncing the British people into war with Iraq and the disaster that followed. We are now expected to blindly trust British intelligence.
The attempted murder of Sergei Skripal and his daughter with the nerve agent, Novichok, is appalling. The use of such chemical weapons is reprehensible and it represents the barbarism of modern warfare. I want to make it clear that we are in no sense defenders, supporters or excusers for the authoritarian Vladimir Putin and the dictatorial regime of which he is part. The Socialist Party has a sister party in Russia, Socialist Alternative, which is subject to repression from that regime. We have consistently raised the question of LGBT oppression in Russia, workers' rights in Russia and of the crackdown on political opposition in Russia. We opposed the slaughter in Chechnya at a time, after 11 September, when western powers were turning a blind eye to what was happening in the name of war and terror. We have opposed their actions in Syria. We hold no truck for their human rights abuses in Russia or anywhere else around the world.
I believe that the Putin regime is well capable of engaging in the use of a nerve agent in this way but the problem is facts are stubborn and no facts or evidence has been presented to us. We are expected to rely on blind faith. There was an excellent article inThe Irish Timesa week and a half ago by Séamus Martin, a former Moscow correspondent, which goes through the arguments and outlines how there are other possible explanations. There is the possibility of the agent getting out of Russian hands, which happened around the collapse of the Soviet Union, the possibility that it was constructed elsewhere and the political complications for Putin, which he said make it appear that the possibility the Kremlin was directly involved seem unlikely. Neither I, the Tánaiste nor Mrs. Theresa May know who was responsible but we are being asked to trust British intelligence and join in this ratcheting up of pressure. This is gross hypocrisy.
We care about this issue but when it comes to known, widely-accepted British collusion in the Dublin and Monaghan bombings and the death of over 30 people - and we know the British were responsible - no diplomats are expelled. So-called "spycops" from Britain have been here and in abusive relationships with women without the knowledge of the Garda or the Government, but nothing has been done about that. We are aware of the gross attacks on democratic rights taking place right now in the Spanish state. Mr. Puigdemont's arrest two days ago means there are now nine Catalan politicians in pre-trial detention while seven are in exile simply for trying to exercise the right to self-determination. There is no action about that.
What is happening now is not about the truth or human rights. It is about a new inter-imperialist rivalry that is taking off in which ordinary, working class people here and around the world have no side. We should refuse to be drawn into the development of a new cold war.
It is really disingenuous of the Minister to suggest that the decision to expel a Russian diplomat does not impinge on our neutrality. Anybody looking objectively at what is happening globally would say there is an escalating confrontation between the United States, Europe and Russia. That is clear. Some of the most horrific outcomes of the new cold war and the confrontation between the major power blocs have been played out in Syria, with disastrous consequences. We are under no illusions about what Mr. Putin represents. He is an authoritarian warmonger who is, frankly, capable of anything. We saw what he is capable of in eastern Ghouta with the use of chemical weapons there. Interestingly, when Deputy Gino Kenny and I asked the Government last week in a Topical Issue debate if it would call in the Russian ambassador to answer questions, never mind expel anybody, on what Russia is doing in eastern Ghouta, it was ignored. The Government did not want to know and did not want to do it.
This week, apparently, we must expel a diplomat on the word of British intelligence and because our European partners are doing that as well. When I was a child and I did something stupid, my parents used to ask, "If everybody else stuck their head in the oven, would you do it too?". Obviously, one would not, but now we are sticking our head into the oven on the basis that everybody else is doing it. This is the Minister's argument. We are sticking our head into the oven of an escalating new cold war between two major power blocs which has already had disastrous consequences in Syria and the Middle East and which is likely to escalate further. The Minister says seriously that this does not impinge on our neutrality. Neutrality is not just about deployment of military forces, it is also about not taking sides in a cold war when neither side is up to anything good. We know Russia has a rotten record and a rotten agenda. We also know that the US-western bloc has a rotten record in Syria, funnelling money through Saudi Arabia to Islamist groups and also trying to manipulate the situation for its own purposes.
As has already been said about the British intelligence service, these are the people who made up complete lies about yellowcake for enriched uranium being sold by Niger to Iraq. It was a total fabrication by the British intelligence services, as were the weapons of mass destruction that were supposed to be in Iraq to justify the war there and the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of people. Consider the files British intelligence still refuses to give to our Government about its involvement in the Dublin and Monaghan bombings. There were no diplomatic sanctions for that. One can go through the list.
Now, on the basis of no evidence, we decide to expel a Russian diplomat. There will be ramifications. That puts us on one side of this conflict and it has implications. There will be retaliation but, more generally, we are on the slippery slope to saying that we are going to agree with whatever Europe and Britain say in this escalating confrontation with Russia because we are part of the European Union. That is not neutrality or an independent foreign policy. In reality, it is putting our citizens in danger. Just as we have long argued that facilitating US troops at Shannon Airport to conduct unjust and criminal wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere undermines our neutrality and increases the likelihood of us being targeted, taking a side in this way also increases that likelihood.
I fully support an ethical foreign policy that might involve expelling diplomats, but it must be consistent. If it is about abhorrence of the use of chemical weapons, expel the Russians for what they did in eastern Ghouta. Expel the Israelis for successive violations of international law and human rights and for the commission of atrocities against the Palestinian people and expel the UK diplomats for refusing to share their files on the Dublin and Monaghan bombings. We must be consistent. There is no consistency in this. We are taking sides in a new cold war and it is a big mistake.
The Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade said the UK Government has concluded that the Russian state was highly likely to be behind the attempted murders. We are not going by somebody else's evidence in our decision-making. They do not even have any. They say it is highly likely. When was anybody ever convicted for being highly likely of being guilty? I do not understand that, unless the laws have been changed. I might not like the Tánaiste's neoliberal politics or his hawkish foreign policy, but I have a lot of time for him. I respect his sincere approach to issues and his integrity. However, I am disappointed with this. This is not strong leadership.
The Tánaiste said that if we had not done this, we would have been in a difficult place. I do not believe Austria is in a difficult place and it is not going to expel anyone. I do not think Mr. de Valera was in a difficult place during the Second World War for not getting involved and despite incredible pressure to do so. We would have been respected if we had said that if there was proof that this had happened, we would look at it. However, there is none. If the guy who is being expelled should not be here, why was he not thrown out last week, last month or last year? I understand the Tánaiste's point that this is being done in solidarity with Britain. We can agree or disagree with that. However, there is no basis for throwing this guy out. We can stand solidly with Britain on many issues but we do not have to throw people out on its behalf. It does not make sense.
The attempt to poison the two individuals was an incredibly bad thing to do. However, 130 children are going to die in Yemen today. That number are dying every day because of hunger and disease caused by the Saudi Arabia-United Arab Emirates, UAE, coalition, with the help of the Americans. We are moving mountains, by throwing out a diplomat and having statements in the Dáil, over the attempted murder of two individuals in Britain while 130 children will die in Yemen. We are still trading with Saudi Arabia and the UAE. I am not saying that we should not trade with them. If we are going to trade with America, we might as well trade with everybody. In 2015, the American special operations forces killed people in 135 different countries without trial. There are only approximately 200 countries in the world.
The Fianna Fáil speaker told us that Russia is undermining European values. We should do the sums and find out how many people the Americans have killed in the past 50 years and how many the Russians have killed.
More than 1 million citizens have died in Iraq because of the invasion and 500,000 children have died from the after-effects of the bombings in the 1991 war. In 1996, Madeleine Albright said that this was a price worth paying in order to maintain American influence and control in the region. She said, "We think the price is worth it", when asked about the 500,000 children who had died from the after-effects of that war. More than 1 million citizens died in Iraq and close to 1 million people died in the various countries around that region. I am rightly amused by the take on the Syrian war, and I wish people would actually inform themselves about it. It is not a black and white situation; there are many sides doing a lot of bad things in it and it has been a terrible disaster. It need not have been that way. It was an avoidable conflict. The amount of destruction that has taken place was not necessary. Why is Ireland not throwing out Israeli diplomats on a regular basis for the genocide that is carried out in Palestine? They are carrying out apartheid in their own country. I do not believe the Minister of State, Deputy Cannon, agrees with many things that he has to do. I believe he is a very honest individual and I do not accept that the Tánaiste thinks this is the way Ireland should be doing things.
I agree with that, and I do not believe the Minister of State could possibly agree with what is written here. It is bordering on pathetic and I believe the Minister of State is way above that standard. The Tánaiste said it was true that we were not in a position to verify independently, but he went on to say that we have to act and that Ireland cannot sit on its hands. The Tánaiste said that this was the only choice and Ireland must show solidarity. How can intelligent human beings choices be reduced to that? Of course we can show solidarity and show our upset, but our role is to show leadership. Ireland is a neutral country but this does not mean we sit on our hands. It does not mean that we do not participate. Neutrality puts an onus on us to act responsibly, to show leadership and to be a force for peace in the world, not the opposite.
The attack on this man and his daughter, and the effect on the policeman and the other people there, was appalling. There are, however, many ways to react to this incident. It must be put into context. Over the past years, a drama has, quite clearly, been building up as pointed out by other colleagues on the left with regard to NATO, the EU, the United States of America and Russia. There has been a building up of missiles right up to the Russian border. It is utter madness if we believe this situation can be taken in isolation while ignoring all of that, and Ireland has now moved its foreign policy.
I totally agree with the satirical Waterford Whispers when it says, "Russians guilty until proven guilty". It is not innocent until proven guilty anymore. We have moved on and it is guilty until proven guilty but typical Ireland and typical tadhg an dá thaobh - we want it both ways. We do not really want to annoy Russia too much, so we do not pick the ambassador, rather we pick somebody less important, and on the basis of evidence over which we cannot stand. The Dáil has given out about the likes of Boris Johnson with regard to Brexit, yet on this issue he is to be trusted and suddenly we choose to believe him. This all comes on top of an article that I resented having to read today, "Ireland and the EU: Defending our common European home", a Fine Gael MEP discussion paper. I felt sickened and I resented having to read this document by four Fine Gael MEPs, two of whom are women. I am appalled because they should be a force for peace. They should show leadership but instead they tell us that we are using "outdated language" around Ireland's neutrality. There are 15 pages in this revolting document and it is well worth looking at if one could perhaps take medication first. I was certainly disturbed by it.
We are told in the document that "big developments are potentially on the horizon " - outdated language indeed. The document also tells us that Ireland claims a jurisdiction that is about three times the size of Germany, and almost a 1 million sq km, 93% of which is under water. It states that this is of huge strategic interest to the whole EU and it is only reasonable that we look for substantial investment from the EU to bolster our defence capability. In Ireland, 104,000 people who have a job are living in poverty while a total of 780,000 people live in poverty, of whom children make up the largest group at 26.5%, or more than one in four. Yet we have this document from four MEPs, two of whom are female, that tells us that Ireland should spend more money. They tell us that the biggest threat is from cyberspace and from those people out there who are different from us. The threat, however, is from poverty, lack of justice, war pushed by the United States of America, the EU and Russia, and climate change. None of these threats is mentioned in the discussion document, just threats from people who do not look like us, do not act like us and do not speak like us. The document says that we need to defend fortress Europe against those people and those barbarians. That is the basis of that document. It does not contain one single analysis of the real threat, which is our failure to show leadership and to stand up and say there is a different way and that it is the way we are going to push, and not play games that are tadhg an dá thaobh.
I, too, wish to voice my disappointment and anger at the attack in Salisbury on 4 March. I do not believe, however, there is much point in debating this issue here now because the decision has been made to expel a diplomat from the Russian embassy. I wonder how the Government decided on one person. Were all the names put into a hat and one fellow pulled out? How long will the termination last? Will Ireland's neutrality be affected? That is the big question being asked by all the people I meet, and rightfully so. Churchill put it up to Ireland when things were very serious in the Second World War but we are all still thankful to Éamon de Valera who kept Ireland neutral in that war. We have a lot to be thankful for in him doing that.
The decision was made this morning to expel this diplomat and we are talking about it this evening. I wonder if the House would be better off talking about the trolley crisis given the still enormous number of people who are left on trolleys in hospitals day after day. I believe there were 27 people on trolleys yesterday in Kerry General Hospital. We trade in different ways with Russia so will this move affect trade? Will it anger them in such a way that we may be opening ourselves to some form of attack along the line? Will they expel Irish diplomats from Russia? Maybe these are the issues about which the Government, the Tánaiste, the Taoiseach and the Ministers in the Cabinet know more than we do. In fairness, however, it seems a hasty decision. Could it not have taken longer? If there was proof or more open proof, maybe we would not be as worried. The UK is about to leave the European Union and it wants to leave.
It is very close to us and is hurt by this attack. If shoe was on the other foot, however, would it do the same for us? Would other countries do the same for us? I hope, now that the Government has made this decision, that definite proof will be provided to show that the Russians carried out this atrocious attack. We have made a very serious decision to expel a Russian diplomat from Dublin. I hope that it will not have adverse implications for our country.
I, too, am happy to speak on this important matter. I note, however, that when it comes to debating the merits of the UK Government's response to the alleged Russian use of a nerve agent in the UK on a former Russian agent and his daughter, there are conflicting positions even within our parties here. I also condemn, in the strongest possible way, the use of that nerve agent in any sovereign state but we need to get our facts right first and not put the cart before the horse as we have done here.
The Taoiseach went into full macho mode last week during the EU Council meeting and firmly aligned himself with France's President, Emmanuel Macron. They are joined at the hip. It is John Wayne stuff. If a newspaper editor were to draw an analogy, he might sum it up as 'Leo the Lion goes up against the Russian Bear'. I do not know what kind of a lion he is but he can be well tamed after this. He might come back with his tail between his legs when the full evidence is heard here. It might seem, on the face of it, to be a very unequal fight and one that the Taoiseach may live to regret at some future point. That is the concern I have, not for the Taoiseach, not that I do not wish him well, but for our country and our people, if it emerges that the Russians were not culpable for this act. What happened to the premise of innocent until proven guilty? Is it now guilty until proven innocent or guilty until proven guilty?
We are over and back to European states and around the world meeting people to discuss the ominous train coming down the tracks in the form of Brexit. At the first whiff of a sneeze from the UK, we all catch flu and say we have to jump into bed with it. We all agree that an unwarranted attack on the sovereign soil of an independent nation such as the UK is an issue of grave concern but we can mind our own business as we did in the Second World War when de Valera kept us neutral. We have benefited greatly from that and earned respect around the world as a neutral country until recently. I agree with Deputy Connolly when we see the musings or the writings or whispers and of the four MEPs who want to change our neutral status and want us to become more warmongers and beef up our defences. They want us to change. That might suit the Government and its allies in Europe but it does not suit the people of Tipperary. I have no truck with it. It is time that wagon was taken off the road. Ireland is a neutral country and it should stay that way. We have had many debates recently about our Army and peacekeepers and we have railed against certain of their aspects and the use of Shannon Airport. We need to wake up. We cannot be on both sides, acting one way and speaking another, namely, out of both sides of our mouths.
No one wants to see such attacks but we must first have a clinical, full and exhaustive investigation, with evidence and proof and someone charged with that attack. We have attached our wagon to the British and 15 or 16 other European countries. Austria did not do it. Other countries have not done it. Are they going to suffer?
There is something very disconcerting about the European response to this alleged attack by Russia. I say alleged because it most certainly has not been proven definitively that the attack was sanctioned by the Kremlin or President Putin, however probable that analysis is. It is probable, dúirt bean liom go ndúirt bean léi go raibh fear i dTiobraid Árann a bhfuil póca ina léine aige. This is all mere hearsay. If this is how we are going to gain kudos with the British as they embark on Brexit, it is a shaky ground or thin ice for us to be walking on.
I also share the concerns of Deputy Boyd Barrett that any expulsion of a Russian diplomat like that which occurred today is potentially a dangerous and reckless move pulling Ireland into an escalating cold war confrontation between the EU the UK, US and Russia. We have many legacy issues. Deputy Boyd Barrett also makes the point that this fundamentally undermines our neutrality and that Fine Gael along with the EU are exploiting the Salisbury atrocity to further their own aims. I say quite boldly.
Aidan McAnespie, the Lord have mercy on him has been dead 40 years. His father, his brothers and his solicitor were here last week seeking justice for his murder. There was a bomb in Omagh that killed 29 people, including a pregnant mother - she and the baby in her womb were killed - with no explanation from the British Government. There were the Dublin and Monaghan bombings in 1974 and no explanations for what happened. Here we are all of a sudden and our macho Taoiseach is giving a knee-jerk reaction, looking at his vanity projects, at how to get out and give himself good exposure, the hard man, the tough man, Leo the lion. He might become Leo the lamb very soon. It is Easter, when we traditionally have lamb. He might be a meek little lamb very soon when this is finished. It would be better for him to stand up to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and the British Foreign Secretary to get justice and get Aidan McAnespie's body parts returned to his family in order to have a proper post mortem and ascertain the fact that he was murdered in cold blood, nothing else.
I am glad to have the opportunity to contribute to this debate and I thank the Tánaiste for providing a briefing to members of the Opposition this afternoon. In spite of that the Social Democrats continue to have concerns about the Government's response to the awful poisoning incident in Salisbury recently. In being prepared to believe that Russia is responsible for the poisoning, particularly in light of the supposed origin of the nerve agent, it would appear that the Government is relying solely on the word of the British Government. While we accept that the UK may have presented strong evidence at the EU Foreign Affairs Council briefing, we are not in a position to adjudicate on that evidence. We are not in possession of the information that was provided. Decisions of this magnitude in this House should be taken on the basis of clear and strong evidence. That is not available. The Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade is talking in terms of in all probability or in all likelihood. That is not strong enough for action of this sort to be taken.
If we are to accept that Russia is responsible, what is the purpose of expelling a diplomat in solidarity? The Minister needs to clarify what this will achieve beyond a statement of solidarity with the UK. There are many other ways we can state our solidarity with the UK in respect of this incident that do not require this action to be taken. The Minister must also clarify why this was the course of action chosen above any other. The expulsion of diplomats is a very low-effort response that seems to have no real purpose. How was that individual chosen to be expelled? Was there some reason for that? Did he or she pose a threat in some way to the State and if so why was that not addressed sooner? It seems to be an extraordinary coincidence that this individual's activities were brought to the attention of the authorities at the same time that the UK was asking us to take action by way of expulsions. While several EU states expelled Russian diplomats from their countries, not all did so.
Austria, Malta, Luxembourg and a number of other countries chose to take a different course.
The decision to expel this diplomat seems to be based entirely on a need to show solidarity with the UK. We have to question if this is an appropriate response in the first instance or, indeed, if it is the most effective way to show our solidarity regarding this terrible attack. Surely this awful incident in Salisbury should result in a redoubling of peace efforts on a pan-European basis. Ireland, as a neutral country, is ideally placed to provide the leadership in that regard. This was a missed opportunity. We were quite sheepish in going along with what the UK was requesting rather than stepping back, looking at what was in the interests of world peace and avoiding a new cold war and providing leadership on that.
In respect of Russian activity in Ireland, a number of reputable sources have alleged that two arms of the Russian security services are operating here, namely, military intelligence, the GRU, and foreign intelligence service, the SVR. The massive planned expansion of the Russian embassy in Rathgar, accompanied by an on-site ESB substation to be built by a Russian company that primarily engages in military contracting, is undoubtedly a cause for alarm. Ireland now has an abnormally large contingent of Russian diplomatic staff for a country of its size. Several other European intelligence agencies have suggested that Ireland could be in the process of being used as a Trojan horse to allow Russian intelligence agencies build links with individuals working in the technology, science and Internet services sector in this country.
There are clear concerns about the embassy being used for nefarious purposes, the most high-profile of these being the 2010 implication of Rathgar-based SVR officers in the running of a spy ring in the US and the forging of Irish passports for this purpose. There is also the disturbing recent hacking of the ESB network by a group linked to the GRU. While the Garda and the National Cyber Security Centre are undoubtedly doing valuable work, it is unacceptable, given the scale of the threat, that we are reliant on overseas intelligence agencies for such information. The fact that we are being viewed as a Trojan horse is no doubt influenced by the scant attention that we pay to these kinds of threats, often assuming that there are things that only occur elsewhere and would not occur here. If a state has a population of less than 3,000 living here and has a history of using Ireland as a base for suspect and questionable activity, alarm bells should be ringing when it makes plans to construct an embassy three times as large as its embassy in the United States. The Government should be investing resources to ensure that there will be preventative work done rather than putting on a show of solidarity, as is happening in respect of this expulsion.
It seems that responsibility for security is spread over a number of agencies, without having a single one with clear responsibility. There are big questions about the capability and capacity of our security services. Allied to this is the urgent need to separate responsibility between policing and the whole security area within the Department of Justice and Equality. Ultimately, we should be doing much more intensive work on this. We should be taking a lead role in respect of peacekeeping rather than engaging in a knee-jerk reaction like this.
I hold no brief, and nor do the Irish people, for the Russian Government, the British Government, the United States Government or indeed the Franco-German EU-NATO alliance. These big nuclear powers are looking after their own interests and the last thing on their minds is the interests of Ireland or the Irish people. All have records of total disregard for human beings and all have been involved in massacres right across the globe. As we speak, we know of the position in Syria and east Ghouta. We know Britain is assisting Saudi Arabia to bomb hundreds of thousands of people into oblivion in Yemen. We know that Britain and France invaded Libya and left behind a situation of total chaos, with three warring government factions.
On the eve of the invasion of Iraq in 2003, hysterical war propaganda dismissed peace, dismissed human rights activists and failed to report the truth. We were told with absolute certainty that the Iraqis had huge arsenals of weapons of mass destruction. It all turned out to be completely untrue and without foundation. The Chilcot report in 2016 established that the former UK Prime Minister, Tony Blair, lied about the threat posed by Saddam Hussein and his so-called weapons of mass destruction. Tony Blair chose invasion while knowing the intelligence information was deliberately flawed. The lesson from that is that intelligence information cannot be trusted, nor can the British Government.
The Tánaiste told us earlier that the action today was all about solidarity with our neighbour. We have to ask ourselves what solidarity that neighbour had with us when citizens were murdered on Bloody Sunday by British security forces, or when 33 Irish citizens died in the Dublin and Monaghan bombings, again with clear involvement of British security forces. To this day, the British Government refuses to give the Irish authorities access to the relevant files.
None of these powers is our ally and we should not and must not take sides. By taking sides, the Government is making us a target in these big power conflicts and targets also for retaliation by people from countries attacked by those powers. Today's decision is another step in compromising Irish neutrality. Political and military neutrality is our best defence and we must maintain that neutrality.
I reiterate the Tánaiste's utter condemnation of the evil attack which took place in Salisbury on 4 March. I repeat that our closest neighbour has assessed that it is highly likely that Russia carried out the first known chemical attack on European soil since the end of the Second World War, and that there is no plausible alternative explanation. The European Council agreed unanimously with the UK's assessment and a substantial majority of EU member states and some other very important partners have chosen to act as we have.
We have long-standing relations with Russia. This year marks the 45th anniversary of our diplomatic relations. Ireland bears Russia no ill will and has never approached our relationship in an adversarial manner. We have always valued the quality of our engagement with Russia. This has not changed and the Tánaiste was pleased to co-chair a meeting of the long-established joint economic committee last December. We have much to gain from each other in our trade, our economic exchanges and, indeed, in our people to people contacts. There is a welcome and a vibrant Russian community in Ireland and we hope that we can continue to build on the many positives in our relationship and to maintain and rebuild good relations despite these unhappy events.
To do so effectively, we must maintain mutual trust and respect, which is best assured by honouring and implementing the commitments we have made as members of the United Nations, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, as well as the Council of Europe. As a small country, Ireland strongly supports the rule of law and the stable rules-based conduct of international relations in a multilateral framework. This is not the first time our perspectives have been different to those of Russia.
In the context of our neutrality, which was mentioned liberally during the recent contributions, Ireland has always been committed to working to achieve a more peaceful, secure and prosperous world. Our soldiers, for example, have a proud track record of peacekeeping since 1958. We also recognise that the spread of weapons of all kinds, including chemical weapons, fuels conflict, contributes to human rights abuses and hinders development.
Promoting disarmament has been one of five signature foreign policies for Ireland and it builds upon Ireland's historic legacy in that area. Being a neutral country does not absolve us of our responsibility to call out and act upon major breaches of an international rules-based order. We are not and have never been neutral with regard to the defence of fundamental values and European solidarity.
I repeat that today's decision has been taken based on an assessment carried out in the past few days of all the relevant political and security factors in the current circumstances by a very high-level official group of security service and relevant departmental officials, co-ordinated by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. There was also input from those Departments involved in economic relations with Russia. We are aware that there may be retaliatory action against our embassy in Moscow. Let me underline that there would be no justification whatsoever for such measures. It is beyond doubt that our staff do not have any duties or functions which are incompatible with their diplomatic status, nor has Ireland acted improperly.