At the beginning of March 2020, the Covid-19 had reached our shores and Ireland was only a few days away from the announcement of the first containment measures. But, as the country was consumed by the pandemic, serious concerns of another kind were being raised within the government.
The Housing Minister is not routinely involved in national security matters, so it was unusual for Eoghan Murphy to be called in for a top secret briefing with senior defense and security officials.
During the briefing, it was explained to the minister at the time that a plan to expand the Russian Embassy on Orwell Road in Dublin had to be stopped.
Planning permission had been granted by Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council in 2015, but further scrutiny of the proposals had raised red flags. The government recently passed a law allowing it to block applications on national security grounds – so it is up to the housing minister to act.
On March 4, just days after Ireland reported its first case of Covid-19, Minister Murphy quietly signed an order revoking part of the embassy’s building permit.
The development was, according to the decree, “likely to harm the security and defense of the State and the relations of the State with other States”.
There was no publicity or press release. It wasn’t until months later that the unprecedented decision was first reported.
The decision to block the embassy expansion, which the Russians called “ridiculous”, was highlighted with the outbreak of war in Ukraine.
Prime Time commissioned architectural visualizations based on the original planning application to illustrate the scale of what was envisioned.
The embassy has applied to expand its footprint at its Orwell Road site to four times its current size. In addition to two new accommodation blocks, underground parking, an ESB substation and water storage tanks, a major extension was planned for the embassy building itself. The three-story development was a particular concern for security officials.
“The Russians wanted to build a major complex with a major underground complex,” Cathal Berry TD, a former Army Ranger, told Prime Time.
This is despite the 5.5 acre site having “plenty of room” to build above ground.
The basement, which was labeled on the layout application for plant storage and use, looked more like a “nerve center” of the operation, according to Mr Berry.
“There are 20 storage rooms, ten power plant rooms and four rooms with no description, called voids. The plans also called for the provision of 13 toilets in the basement, which is considered unusual for a storage area.”
“You could have the GRU, which is Russian military intelligence, or the SVR, which is their foreign intelligence service, operating underground,” Berry explained.
Security sources feared the underground area was ideal for storing computer servers that could be used in data mining, troll farming and launching so-called “influence” operations.
In an interview with Prime Time last month, Russian Ambassador to Ireland Yuri Filatov dismissed the idea that the embassy expansion posed a threat to the Irish state.
During the interview with Sarah McInerney, which took place at the Orwell Road complex, Mr Filatov said the 100-year-old embassy building was no longer suitable.
“We’re sitting in the embassy’s only reception hall – that’s it, he said. “It wasn’t supposed to be an office or an embassy.
Mr Filatov said he hoped “common sense” would prevail, adding that the Russians were still negotiating with the Irish government to find a “workable solution”.
However, the subsequent outbreak of war reinforced the Irish decision to revoke planning permission.
Philip Ingram, a former MI6 officer who specializes in Russia, told Prime Time that the Orwell Road Embassy would likely work on the war effort.
“They are going to hide with their intelligence officers inside the embassy,” he said.
“The secret agents they have on the ground will try to find out what the EU and elsewhere are thinking, both from an economic sanctions perspective, but also from a military build-up perspective.”
Mr Ingram said Ireland was the “perfect place” for hidden agents to carry out nefarious tasks or from which to manage other agents.
Apart from expanding the embassy building itself, Russia has taken steps to ensure it has a constant supply of water and fuel at the site.
A water pumping station and an underground fuel store were both included in the site plans.
“If there was a problem with Irish water from a maintenance or contamination point of view, they would be self-sufficient in water,” Berry explained.
While the government revoked permission to expand the embassy, a new consular building and the accommodation blocks were allowed.
New figures communicated to Prime Time show that there will be no shortage of personnel to occupy the buildings. Russia has the second largest number of embassy staff in Ireland, with 30 Russians accredited to the diplomatic mission. Only the United States has more accredited embassy staff, with 37.
The staff of the Russian embassy is greater than that of the Chinese (25), Saudi (24), British (23) and French (20) embassies.
According to Mr. Ingram, the scale of the operation is telling.
“The question I would ask is, why are you growing? Why are you getting so big? And if you couldn’t answer that from a legitimate perspective, the only answer there could be is from an illegitimate perspective. .”
Ireland is of considerable strategic importance to Russia, Mr Ingram said.
“You have a lot of transatlantic communication channels, so the Russians will try every possible operation to interact with those.”
While the border with Northern Ireland allows easy access to the UK, a base in Ireland also offers other political opportunities.
“Ireland is a neutral country outside NATO but inside the EU. Russia loves sticking its diplomatic knife in that crack and squirming.”
Describing staffing levels as “completely unbalanced”, Mr Berry noted that there were only a few thousand Russians living in Ireland.
“Trade ties between Ireland and Russia are very weak. We actually do more trade with the state of New Jersey in the United States than we do with all of Russia. So it’s completely out of kilter,” a- he declared.
“You have to wonder, why would that be?”
Unlike the 30 accredited employees of the Russian Embassy in Dublin, there are currently only four Irish diplomats in Russia.
“There should be an equal number of Russian nationals at the Russian Embassy in Dublin and Irish nationals at the Irish Embassy in Moscow,” Berry said.
Agreeing to a cohort of Russian diplomats remaining here, Mr Berry believes there are others based at the Dublin embassy who should be expelled.
“Many of them have nothing to do with diplomacy. They should definitely be sent home.”
It would not be the first time that Ireland has packed the bags of Russian diplomats.
Following the Salisbury poisonings in 2018 and a passport fraud scandal in 2011, the government revoked the visa of a Dublin-based Russian diplomat.
And, in 1983, three Soviet embassy staff were expelled when a spying operation was uncovered. At the time, the expulsions were not publicly explained and most assumed they were linked to links between the USSR and the IRA.
But, in his memoirs, former taoiseach Garrett FitzGerald revealed that the Irish government had been tipped off that Soviet spies were exchanging information with an American double agent in the Stillorgan shopping center in Dublin.
Although Russia’s plans to build the extension in Dublin have been halted, questions have not arisen.
Why would an embassy that only represents a few thousand citizens want a building of this size, with a network of underground rooms on a site with plenty of room to build?
The government intensified it to prevent expansion. Given the current conflict, an even closer eye is now being kept on activities at Orwell Road.