52 politicians wear their ban like a badge of honour, but nobody from Sinn Féin or Greens on blacklist
A genuine heavy-hitter was lined up to address Fine Gael’s ard fheis in Athlone this weekend. Former heavyweight boxing champion Vitali Klitschko, now the mayor of Kyiv, was due to speak at the event.
The mayor has been a strong defender of Ukraine since the invasion by Russia, and is a powerful figurehead for the country. So much so, that the Russians even tried to have an impostor pose as him and communicate with officials in other European countries earlier this year.
His party, the Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform, is aligned to Fine Gael’s grouping in Europe, so the invitation was made and accepted some months back.
Klitschko has left Kyiv at times over the past year, including to attend the World Economic Forum in Davos where he met world leaders to rally support for his country. The fending off of the advance on Kyiv in March, when Russian forces were massing on approach roads to the capital, was a key development in the war.
Klitschko’s visit to the midlands was cancelled after Russian bombardment of his city began again last month. Air-raid sirens were heard again after Russian president Vladimir Putin ordered a series of strikes in retaliation for the Ukrainian attack on the Kerch bridge to Crimea. The targeting of civilian areas and infrastructure in the Ukrainian capital resumed.
Instead, the incoming Taoiseach Leo Varadkar is expected to deliver a message of solidarity to the people of Ukraine, be it at home in their own country or seeking refuge here. Making it clear where Ireland stands in this fight, he can wear being on a list of political figures banned from Russia as a badge of honour.
Moscow says 52 Irish politicians are “fuelling Russophobic hysteria in Irish society”. The list goes from Taoiseach Micheál Martin down to obscure senators that, to be quite frank, most people will never have heard of.
Accusing Irish politicians of “conducting an aggressive anti-Russian propaganda campaign” is part of the standard distraction tactics coming out of Moscow.
Most of the names on the list will come as no surprise: senior figures in the Government who have supported Ukraine, the head of the Dáil who invited Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky to address the parliament earlier in the year, TDs senators and an MEP who have been outspoken in their outrage against the Russian aggression, including those who represent Ireland on the Council of Europe.
The list also appears to include a range of Fianna Fáil figures who signed a petition to have the Russian Ambassador expelled from Ireland. Over the past 24 hours, the Department of Foreign Affairs has been notifying those named of their inclusion. The politicians have then been proudly declaring they are on the list and committing to not being silenced.
Looking at the response to some of those declarations on social media, there is a clear presence of Russian bot accounts. Assuming Twitter is still in existence tomorrow, Elon Musk's vow to only allow verified accounts from real people would be a welcome development in the global talking shop.
Our focus has to be on the solidarity with people of Ukraine
The burst of democratic patriotism does serve a domestic purpose though. The continued arrival of refugees from Ukraine is putting pressure on the Government in the provision of housing, health and other public services. Putting nearly a quarter of the members of the national parliament on a blacklist merely serves to strengthen the resolve of these parties to stand their ground. If Moscow’s masterplan was to frighten off opposition to its aggression, the result has been the opposite.
Fine Gael is also pressing for military support for Ukraine in the form of assistance with landmine clearance by our Defence Forces, which it says does not breach our neutrality.
In some way, everyone on the list has expressed revulsion against Russia’s brutal war against a democratic country and stated it is a gross violation of international law. The Taoiseach admits the list is “incoherent and thrown together”. Ceann Comhairle Seán Ó Fearghaíl is in there but Cathaoirleach of the Seanad Mark Daly is not. Yet they jointly invited Zelensky to address the Oireachtas and subsequently visited Kyiv, meeting with Zelensky.
“Our focus has to be on the solidarity with people of Ukraine and also maintaining pressure on Russia in the international arena to stop this war,” the Taoiseach said.
“I think it’s very, very important we understand what's afoot here by the Russian government and not be deflected by it, to maintain our focus on keeping international pressure on Russia.”
But the list has also prompted much discussion about those not included. Putin’s blacklist does not include any members of the Green Party, despite it being the junior coalition partner in the Government. Neither is there anybody from the main opposition party, Sinn Féin, on the list.
The official line from the Government is that some people are not named in an effort to create division and distraction. Fianna Fáil senator Timmy Dooley, the first member of the Oireachtas to visit Kyiv after the outbreak of war, was quite happy to respond to Sinn Féin supporters by pointing out it was “funny that no Sinn Féin representative has been sanctioned".
“I’ve noticed this for the last number of years. Sinn Féin will never criticise Russia – always remain silent
Funny indeed. Sinn Féin can point out it has consistently condemned the invasion of Ukraine. However, the party has often been accused of being soft on Russian aggression.
Over the past few years, the failures of the party to join in European Parliament votes condemning Russia have been noted, without getting much public traction.
The spotlight fell firmly on Sinn Féin last Christmas as the Taoiseach said he found it extraordinary that the party had been “absolutely silent” on Russia’s build-up of troops on the Ukrainian border, accusing it of being “anti-European Union”.
“I’ve noticed this for the last number of years. Sinn Féin will never criticise Russia – always remain silent,” Mr Martin said at the time.
Within months, the Russian invasion showed those suspicious of the intentions of Putin’s regime were right. The invasion has sparked a dual crisis across Europe: the largest movement of refugees on the Continent since World War II and the biggest energy price surge since the 1970s.
Again, Sinn Féin has been under fire, with the Taoiseach accusing the party of taking the same line of attack on the ongoing energy crisis as the Russian Ambassador to Ireland, by not blaming it on the war.
Only three weeks ago, the Taoiseach and Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald clashed over the housing of refugees. Ms McDonald said the Government’s failure to accommodate Ukrainian refugees mirrored its general failures on housing. But the Taoiseach claimed Sinn Féin was “playing both sides” on Ukrainian refugees.
The Greens have been innocuous enough on the war, condemning Russia from the outset for its “unprovoked and savage attack on its democratic neighbour” but not getting into tit-for-tat exchanges.
The party’s peacenik roots make it consistently anti-war and pro-neutrality. But it has stood up strongly against tyranny in the past with the US policies in the Middle East often bearing the brunt and China also being in the cross hairs, once famously sparking a walkout by Chinese diplomats over an expression of support for Tibet. The rhetoric on this occasion hasn’t qualified as “anti-Russian propaganda”.
The lack of inclusion of Sinn Féin figures, who have also called on the expulsion of Russian Ambassador Yuriy Filatov, will lead to some conjecture. But that’s all part of Moscow’s aim to sow doubt and division.
The Russians aren’t explaining further the qualification criteria for inclusion on the list or why nobody from the Greens or Sinn Féin features on it.
“The statement by the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs of November 16 is very precise and comprehensive and we do not have anything to add to that. The statement sets clear criteria for being on that list. We are not going to comment on the particulars of the list,” a spokesman for the Russian Embassy in Dublin says.