11 February, 2024

In 2015 the Russian Embassy in the Republic of Ireland secured local government approval to quadruple its footprint. However, on 4 March 2020, without publicity, the central government in Dublin overrode this decision and gutted its plans. What were they and why was this action taken?

Diplomatic relations were not established between Ireland and the then USSR until 1973. In the following year the Russians acquired a building on a large plot for their embassy at 184-186 Orwell Road in the Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council area and in 1975 also purchased a residence at Ailesbury Road, some distance away but popular with other missions. Despite having little commerce with Ireland and few nationals to look after in the country, by 2016 the Russians had eighteen diplomatic officers (including two defence attachés) and – judged by figures for more recent years revealed by the foreign minister to the Dáil – probably at least as many administrative and technical staff at their embassy. Only those of Canada (with many immigration attachés) and Saudi Arabia (heaving with cultural attachés) were larger; even the Americans only had sixteen diplomatic officers in their own Dublin mission. The staff list of the Russian Embassy in the Irish capital was also very long relative to that in the great majority of its other embassies.

The plans for the expansion of the Russian embassy in south Dublin, locally approved in 2015, is cleverly shown in architectural visualisations commissioned by the Irish public service broadcaster, RTÉ. To see this, view the voiced version of Louise Byrne’s valuable broadcast rather than the transcript. There was provision for two new accommodation blocks, an underground car park and a substation of the state-owned Electricity Supply Board. But what stood out in the plans were the proposals for water and fuel storage tanks, which seemed to suggest precautions against a siege, and even more those for the 100-year old embassy building itself. As well as a three-storey extension, this was to have a vast basement containing twenty rooms for storage, ten for power plants, four for unspecified purposes – and thirteen toilets. Why did the Russians need an expansion of their premises on this scale and, in particular, a comfortably equipped underground complex of this size when there remained ample space on the 5.5 acre mission site for cheaper above-ground building?

The answer is not difficult to imagine. With Ireland’s geographical position, strong tradition of military neutrality (it is not a member of NATO), skeletal armed forces and open border with the British province of Northern Ireland, it is ‘the back door’ to the UK. In addition, on the unguarded seabed of the waters off its west coast are to be found vital but vulnerable transatlantic cables, while the politics of the whole island of Ireland have remained precariously balanced despite the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. With more over-ground accommodation and, in particular, an underground complex in which intelligence officers and computer hackers and election influencers could work safe from the prying eyes of visitors to the embassy as well as its own service staff, the mission was perfectly placed to make an enhanced contribution to the hybrid warfare that had become the hallmark of Vladimir Putin’s increasingly hostile posture to the West. In Ireland, worrying evidence of this was Russia’s increased naval presence in the North Atlantic.

It was in fact because it shared suspicions such as these that the Irish government concluded that the Russian Embassy’s expansion plans were ‘likely to be harmful to the security and defence of the State and the State’s relations with other states’, and in March 2020, save for allowing the accommodation blocks and a new consular building to go forward, vetoed the rest of them.

This decision was ‘ludicrous’, complained the Russians. What was genuinely ludicrous was the notion that, once subjected to expert scrutiny, they could ever have got away with a plan of this nature. The ambassador, Yuri Filatov, whose mission, it is true, had been under modest siege from protesters since the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 (nothing Tehran-style, although its gates were smashed by a truck), could at least console himself with one development. His address was not to be changed to 184-186 ‘Independent Ukraine Road’, even though in March 2022 this proposal was unanimously endorsed by the same body that years earlier had approved the whole of the embassy’s expansion plan, Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council. I cannot resist adding that protesters urging embassy address changes had better luck in Washington with the embassy of Saudi Arabia. This now stands on a section of New Hampshire Avenue N.W. formally re-named by the Council of the District of Columbia ‘Jamal Khashoggi Way’, after the contrarian Saudi journalist murdered and chopped up in the Saudi Consulate-General in Istanbul in 2018.