Three ministers warned about frosty relations with Russia
Three incoming Irish ministers have been briefed on Ireland's frosty relations with President Vladimir Putin's Russia. Issues of concern include Russia's involvement in Ukraine, unauthorised Russian military flights in Irish-controlled airspace and a block on Irish food exports.
"Twenty five years after the fall of the USSR, relations between Russia and the EU are in a state of reciprocal mistrust," Ireland's diplomats told Foreign Affairs Minister Charlie Flanagan.
But Russia's Ambassador to Ireland Maxim Peshkov had his own answer to the criticism.
Claims in the briefing to Mr Flanagan that Russia was pursuing an "aggressive foreign policy" were met by Mr Peshkov with the suggestion that Washington was influencing such views in Europe.
"There is a saying: 'A dog is barking, the caravan is proceeding'," Mr Peshkov told the Irish Independent yesterday. "So it's their business to call us names. Our business is to do our work."
When asked about a claim by Mr Flanagan's officials that there was repression within Russia, he rejected this, saying: "The same. Dogs - let them bark. Our caravan will proceed."
But despite apparent difficulties between Dublin and Moscow, Mr Peshkov insisted relations were on good terms.
"I wouldn't say that they are bad. On the contrary, we have rather constructive co-operation with Ireland," he said, citing areas of engagement including counter-terrorism, business and cultural links between the two countries. Russian ballet troupes travel to Ireland, St Patrick's Day was celebrated in Moscow, and there were "dozens" of Irish dancing schools in his country, Mr Peshkov said.
Russian people living here "love Ireland", he added.
Mr Flanagan's officials said Ireland had a "dual-track approach" towards the Kremlin. They support "restrictive measures" such as EU sanctions imposed after the 2014 annexation of Crimea while "maintaining channels of dialogue".
Mr Peshkov disagreed that Crimea was "annexed". He said: "96pc of people living in Crimea ... voted for their independence and then to be reunited with Russia. It's their will and we accepted this will."
Another thorny foreign policy issue is the Russian military involvement in war-torn Syria. Mr Peshkov said his country's forces were invited by the government in Damascus and were therefore in compliance with international law.
Mr Peshkov agreed that there was mistrust between Europe and Russia on some issues.
"I wouldn't say that the party to be blamed is only Russia," he said, but added that contacts must be maintained to "find some compromises".
A Department of Foreign Affairs spokesman said the Government supported the EU's approach to Russia, but also noted Ireland's "long-standing friendly relations" with Moscow.
In other matters, Transport Minister Shane Ross was briefed on unauthorised incursions into Irish-controlled airspace by Russian war planes in 2015. His officials told him the Government "raised the issue diplomatically with the Russian authorities". Non-notification of such flights was "unacceptable", Mr Ross was told.
Mr Peshkov said the flights were within "the norms of international law" and there was "no risk at all" to civilian air traffic.
He said the Russian flights were resumed in response to "an explosion of activity" of similar Nato flights in the Baltic.
"We didn't have any official reprimand from the Irish Government. I had a small contact with the Minister for Foreign Affairs," he said.
Irish dairy and meat exports are being blocked be a "Russian Presidential ban", Agriculture Minister Michael Creed was told in his briefing. This was imposed in response to the EU sanctions on Russia over Ukraine.
Asked about the prospects of the ban being lifted, Mr Peshkov, referring to the EU sanctions, said: "Well the polite answer is, after you gentlemen. You initiated it."