With all the current focus on the election, there is a tendency to overlook some important news stories, such as this week's expulsion of a Russian diplomat as punishment for the Russian's fraudulent use of Irish passports in a spying ring, which involved surveillance in the United States.
The expulsion seems to come late -- the Russian misuse of the passport happened some months ago -- but is a serious mark of disapproval to a former superpower and major international power. Some critics felt the Irish Government was being too soft on Russians, given the way they carpeted the Israeli Ambassador and expelled an Israeli diplomat for a similar abuse, especially since the Israel action was not proven, though strongly suspected, whereas the Russian case was an actual fraud. The suspicion was that Ireland's relations with Israel were so poor already, that it hardly mattered, whereas Russia is a major source of trade and investment.
In fact, both cases illustrate how prized an Irish passport is for such use and misuse, and thus also the subject of deterioration in its international status. This is quite in contrast to before, and my own time at the Irish Consulate in New York in 1990s, when much-prized Irish passports were issued to Hollywood stars and celebrities, along with thousands, and even tens of thousands, of other Irish Americans, who sought the document precisely because it was a safe badge of lovable, neutral Ireland who colonised nobody and who everyone respected in the developing and Arab worlds. It is likely that hostage Brian Keenan's life was saved because of his Irish passport.
By contrast, in January last year, a senior Hamas commander was bumped off in the Gulf State of Dubai apparently by Israeli Mossad agents, travelling under such 'Irish' names as Kevin Daveron and Evan Dennings. Using forged Irish passports, they entered the Gulf State where they hid out in Commander al-Mobhouh's hotel room before strangling him to death.
International condemnation of the killing was swift and then Minister for Foreign Affairs Micheal Martin was particularly uncensored in his criticism, before expelling an Israeli diplomat. But the Russian case is equally serious, especially since it links us to a major espionage operation in the US. Last June, American investigators broke up a major Russian spy ring and arrested 10 people in New York, Boston, New Jersey and Virginia. All 10 were later deported as part of a spy swap deal with Russia.
The spy ring showed the brazen nature of Putin's Russia, a place where major criminal gangs operate and where anti-government journalists get mysteriously killed. Thus, even though the Irish Government said that it wished to 'move on' after last week's expulsion, the Russians retorted with an ominous statement "threatening retaliation" for the move, calling it a "clearly an unfriendly step that will not go unanswered", according to Russia's deputy foreign minister Vladimir Titov. "It will not go without a corresponding reaction," he confirmed. This is the typical robust language of the shameless Putin regime. After any terrorist attack in Moscow now, the government does not say, as is customary elsewhere, that "the perpetrators will vigorously pursued and brought to justice" but instead that they will be "hunted down and eliminated". It's a macho world: don't mess with us, even when we are abusing your passports. The Russian embassy in Dublin appeared embarrassed by these remarks and sought clarification from Moscow. Needless to say, Dublin said there would be no justification for expelling an Irish diplomat from Russia. The Irish staff there have no intelligence functions of any kind, it stressed, and retaliatory action would be completely unwarranted. By contrast, a garda inquiry found that "there is an entirely persuasive picture of Russian intelligence service involvement in the manufacture and use of false documents based on the acquisition of details of six genuine passports belonging to Irish citizens". To make matters worse, the Russians appropriated the passports of volunteers working with the Irish charity, To Russia With Love.
Yet the number of international controversies involving fake Irish passports begs serious questions about the proliferation of such valuable documents abroad and about the country's image internationally. Many now feel that the old notions abroad of a 'sovereign' and 'neutral' Ireland, where our 'harmless' citizens are friends to all, is an outdated stereotype. It may be how we like to think of ourselves but it is a self-delusion internationally. To many in the rest of the world, we gave up our neutrality a long time ago. In addition, Ireland's actions, and often-confused foreign stances, may have affected the value and currency of our once pristine passport. The Israelis have long considered Ireland hostile, whether through the Free Gaza Movement and the MV Rachel Corrie, or a perceived tradition of Irish solidarity toward Palestinians.
In America's war on terror, Ireland, though neutral, has provided the US with Shannon Airport as a stopover for military flights, while we have vigorously courted and secured US multinational dollar. In essence, we have been as self-serving and biased as any other state, and are undoubtedly perceived as such. It is little wonder our passport has been subject to such increased abuse, and so flagrantly. Either way, it is something which will not just affect our international standing, but also have serious repercussions for the safety of normal Irish people as their once-prized national passport becomes associated with forgery, deception and international terrorism.