I want to begin by expressing my shock and sadness at Sunday’s devastating fire in a shopping centre in the Russian city of Kemerovo, which claimed so many lives. The fact that a number of children were among the victims is particularly tragic and upsetting. Our thoughts and condolences are with the victims, their loved ones and the Russian community here in Ireland at this very difficult time.
Separately, on 4 March Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, were found unconscious on a public bench in Salisbury town centre in England. They were taken to hospital, where they remain in a critical condition from which they may never recover. Investigators discovered that they had been exposed to a nerve agent, traces of which were found in a local restaurant and pub. A police officer who went to their aid was also exposed to the poison and became seriously ill. He was only recently discharged from hospital. Over 130 civilians were potentially exposed, with 50 people being assessed in hospital.
On 12 March, Prime Minister May told the House of Commons that the Skripals were poisoned with a military-grade nerve agent of a type developed by Russia, part of a group of nerve agents known as Novichok. Her Government had concluded that there were only two plausible explanations for what happened. It was either a direct act by the Russian State against the United Kingdom or the Russian Government had lost control of this deadly nerve agent. The Russian Government was asked to provide an explanation for what had occurred and to make an immediate complete disclosure of the Novichok programme to the Organisation of the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, OPCW.
On 14 March, the Prime Minister told the House of Commons that Russia had not offered a credible explanation nor had it provided a reason for having an undeclared chemical weapons programme in contravention of international law. As a result, the Government of the United Kingdom had concluded that the Russian State was highly likely to be behind the attempted murders. The Prime Minister announced a series of immediate actions, including the expulsion of 23 Russian diplomats identified as undeclared intelligence officers.
Since then, the international community has rallied to the UK’s side. On 15 March the leaders of France, Germany and the United States issued a joint statement with the United Kingdom in which they agreed with the British conclusion that there was no plausible alternative explanation. They noted that Russia further underlined its responsibility by its failure to address the legitimate request for information by the United Kingdom Government. They called on Russia to address all questions related to the attack and to provide a full and complete disclosure of the Novichok programme to the OPCW.
Intensive briefings were provided by the United Kingdom at senior EU official level and to EU foreign ministers, including myself, at the Foreign Affairs Council on 19 March. Last Thursday, Prime Minister May explained to the European Council the basis on which her Government had come to its assessment. Her presentation was compelling. Having listened to it, and to the views of other Member States with significant security services that are in a position to verify what she said, the leaders of every member state of the EU, including those with historically close ties with Russia, unanimously agreed with the United Kingdom’s assessment that it was highly likely that Russia was responsible and that no plausible alternative explanation existed. The Taoiseach played an active part in what was a lengthy and substantive debate.
In the wake of these shocking events, it is essential all EU member states stand in unqualified solidarity with the United Kingdom. The use of chemical weapons, including the use of any toxic chemicals as weapons, is particularly shocking and abhorrent. The reckless attack in Salisbury was the first known use of a nerve agent in Europe since the Second World War. It was not just an attack against one country but an affront to the international rules-based system on which we all depend for our security and well-being. It is right that Ireland should stand in full solidarity with the UK, our closest neighbour, with which we share so much and with which we have, in many ways, a shared home in the European Union.
The European Council agreed to recall the EU ambassador to Russia for consultations. While the expulsion of diplomats is entirely a matter for national decision, it was agreed that member states should co-ordinate as far as possible. Yesterday, 16 EU member states announced that they would expel Russian diplomats. This is a clear majority of member states. It includes east and west, north and south, big and small, NATO and non-NATO. The United States, Canada, Norway, Australia and other countries with which we have excellent relations have taken similar steps for the same reasons. In total, 100 Russian diplomats have been expelled. President Tusk has said that additional measures within a common EU framework cannot be excluded in the coming days and weeks.
Following an urgent assessment conducted by the security services and relevant Departments chaired by the Secretary General of my Department, I briefed the Cabinet this morning on my intended course of action. Following that briefing, the Secretary General met the Russian Ambassador and informed him that the accreditation of a member of his staff with diplomatic status is to be terminated in line with the provisions of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. The individual in question is required to leave the jurisdiction within a short specified timeframe.
I am aware that there are those who will not agree with this decision. It is true that we are not in a position to verify independently the United Kingdom’s assessment of responsibility for Salisbury. However, I underline that the evidence advanced by the UK, which has been confirmed by other key countries, has convinced all 27 other EU leaders to act. Some people have drawn analogies with the question of weapons of mass destruction and the Iraq war. There is no gainsaying that a weaponised nerve agent was used against the Skripals. Whereas Iraq divided the EU, this issue has actually united countries.
There are those who will say we should have waited until the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons concluded its investigation. The OPCW is not investigating the circumstances of the poisoning or responsibility for it. The United Kingdom has notified the OPCW about the case of the nerve agent and has invited it to verify its scientific analysis and findings.
Russia has offered several alternative - and varying - narratives of the events in Salisbury and has posed a number of rhetorical questions. To put it mildly, none of them offers a plausible alternative explanation. It is easy to recall previous instances of unacknowledged unacceptable behaviour which were uncovered bit by bit. It is also important that the great majority of Ireland's closest international partners, inside and outside the EU, have chosen to act as we have, that is, in solidarity with the United Kingdom. Not to be on their side would put us in a strange place. As I said, we have a uniquely close relationship with the United Kingdom. I was not willing to support the idea that 16 other member states of the European Union would act and Ireland would sit on its hands. However, I emphasise that the decision was not just based on political and diplomatic factors. I want to make clear that the assessment included the full range of factors, including our own national security, and relied on the advice of those with the greatest relevant expertise in each area.
Some have said that our decision somehow breaches our neutrality or undermines our foreign policy. This is a complete red herring unless one interprets neutrality as never taking a side on any issue. Ireland has never been neutral when it comes to defending the rule of law and international security or, for that matter, promoting disarmament. Other countries which are not members of NATO have taken similar action to Ireland's. As members of the European Union, while we retain our national freedom of action in such matters, our default position must be one of solidarity and unity.
Finally, some have argued that this House should have been consulted in advance of our decision or indeed should have voted on it. This is completely out of line with international practice. Nor is it what has happened in previous expulsions of foreign diplomats from Ireland. There are times when the State needs to act swiftly and in line with our Constitution. We had a choice to make: either to act in solidarity with our closest neighbour or to do nothing. We had an obligation to act and to send a clear signal that what happened in Salisbury is totally unacceptable. We recognise it is important to maintain good relations with Russia, but we needed to respond to this issue. I am glad it has been possible for me to brief the Opposition parties this afternoon. I am also pleased to have the chance to place on the record of the House the reasons for the actions the Government has taken today.