Monday 16 September 2019

Claims of 'independent Irish intelligence assessment' of Russia are just nonsense

In assessing the attack on the Skripals, we ought to be aware that Putin isn't the only thug on the scene, writes Gene Kerrigan

Russian President Vladimir Putin. Photo: Alex Zemlianichenko/PA
Russian President Vladimir Putin. Photo: Alex Zemlianichenko/PA
Gene Kerrigan

Gene Kerrigan

Was it Vladimir Putin, a man with a thuggish history, who gave orders that Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia be dosed with a horrific nerve agent?

I don't know. Neither do you, neither does Leo Varadkar. But the Taoiseach has to pretend to know.

To put this in perspective, we'll look in a moment at two other incidents of international skulduggery in which this State was affected. And, with them in mind, let's consider what might possibly be going on in this Skripal business.

Are we agreed, first of all, that the Russians did it?

The assassins used Novichok nerve gas, and we're led to believe you need state-level resources to get hold of that.

Which state? Belgium? Mexico? Canada? Kenya? Burkina Faso? Much as we hate to engage in groupthink, it's hard to find any state with a grudge against Mr Skripal, apart from Russia, which developed Novichok.

So, if it's a state it's probably Russia. That's as far as we can go. Maybe it was Putin, or some lower-level thug. Or some resentful friend of one of the 300 Russian agents Mr Skripal allegedly exposed. (And, by the way, were any of them murdered by the Brits or the Yanks and, if so, do we care?)

Now, let's consider those two incidents of state thuggery - both affecting this country.

First, Iran-Contra, 1985-87.

Seven Americans were being held hostage in Lebanon. US politicians thought this made them look weak. Here's the plan President Ronnie Reagan approved.

A) We'll ask our deadly enemies, the government of Iran, to ask its Lebanese friends to release the hostages.

B) We'll reward the Iranian government by selling it the missiles it needs to pulverise Iraq.

C) To conceal this from the American people, we'll get Israel to secretly send the missiles to Iran, out of the stock of missiles we gave them.

D) We'll secretly replace the missiles for the Israelis.

And that's what they did. They sold 2,030 TOW and Hawk missiles to Iran. All of this documented by a Congressional inquiry.

There was more.

Reagan approved using the money from the missiles to secretly fund terrorism in Nicaragua, where the right- wing Contras were trying to overthrow the elected left-wing government.

Where does Ireland come in?

When senior US administration officials flew to Tehran to negotiate with the Iranian enemy they were arguably committing treason. To maintain secrecy, the officials used 10 "neutral" Irish passports.

US National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane was "Sean Devlin", from Dublin. (The passports were either forged, or allegedly stolen from the Irish embassy in Athens.)

When this came out, and the credibility of Irish passports was at risk all over the Middle East, the Irish Government expressed outrage at being drawn into a plan to arm terrorists. They expelled 15 US diplomats, and... well, no, they didn't do any of that.

They expressed nothing, did nothing. They swallowed it. The Irish passport was discredited in an international plot that flouted the law, killed countless people and funded terrorism. The US suffered no penalty for any of this.

Second example? Closer to home, the Dublin-Monaghan massacre. Thirty-three dead, from loyalist bombs.

Incredibly, the Irish Government of the day "showed little interest in the bombings". This is not an opinion; it's a quote, based on evidence, from the report of Mr Justice Henry Barron, who conducted an inquiry into the bombing.

Last year, the edited notebooks of the late Justin Keating - a member of that Government - were published under the title, Nothing Is Written in Stone.

Written in his final years, it's a remarkably honest and insightful assessment of his time in public life. Commenting on that conclusion by Judge Barron, Keating wrote: "With great regret I have to say that this corresponds to my recollection."

It wasn't just the Government that didn't want to look too deeply into the bombing. The bombs went off in May 1974, the Garda investigation ended prematurely in August.

It's as though someone didn't want to know what happened.

There's a lot of information about the Loyalists involved. And there are grounds for believing they may have got help from UK security forces.

Justin Keating, a committed opponent of Republican violence, not given to wild claims, wrote: "I believe that Northern Ireland security forces were involved."

Conspiracy theory? It's not theoretical, there is evidence.

These are two exceptionally violent examples of State skulduggery. There are others. In assessing the attack on the Skripals, and the consequent formation of an anti-Russian alliance, we ought to be aware that Putin isn't the only thug on the scene - and to bear two things in mind.

First, the USA and the UK states are subject to parliamentary scrutiny, but that hasn't stopped politicians and state agents engaging in violent, lawless conduct.

Second, this country once had an independent foreign policy, whereas these days it's notoriously deferential, while given to occasional kick-the-Brits rhetoric.

The claim that a Russian diplomat was expelled only after an independent Irish intelligence "assessment" is transparent nonsense.

Novichok nerve agent is extremely dangerous. Yet, it seems to have been less than deadly. Sergei lingers, critically ill. Yulia has regained consciousness. The contaminated policeman left hospital within a short time.

Why not use a gun or a knife? Even a hammer would have been more effective.

Novichok might have been used by Putin's people to leave a Russian signature, to frighten others.

On the other hand, the "state-level" claim might not be true. Novichok might have been available to intelligence agents, British or otherwise, and used - incompetently - to point to Russia. There might have been other reasons to kill Skripal.

We could speculate on who benefited from the disproportionate, reckless, yet inept Novichok plot. We might wonder about the rushed anti-Russian alliance and the way it fits into complex Brexit agendas of more than one side.

But it would be wrong and dangerous to conclude without strong evidence that some intelligence outfit, British or otherwise, rogue or otherwise, was playing some bizarre game. Russian state thuggery is more likely - but no evidence whatever has been produced.

The Russian state has a history of thuggery, as has its leader. But that state, and that leader, are not unique in this.

The reciprocal expulsion of diplomats is a silly dance. The moves might well be agreed between the sides, in back-channel discussions.

In the Irish Government response, there's a worrying knee-jerk deference that in other circumstances may lead to truly foolish and dangerous actions.

Some of us would be less worried if the Taoiseach didn't display an unmistakeable expression of excitement as he referenced his engagement in "national security" talks.

Sunday Independent

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