SECRET BID TO HALT RUSSIAN ‘SPY CENTRE’
Government will be given unprecedented powers to block planning as Russia starts expanding embassy
AN unprecedented national security measure to allow ministers to block planning permission for dubious super developments like the Russian Embassy is to be introduced, the Irish Mail on Sunday reveals today.
Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan unveiled an amendment to planning law at this week’s Cabinet meeting, that was initiated because of the new, gargantuan Russian Embassy which has been expanded from 2,000sq.m to 10,000sq.m in three years.
Senior gardaí advised the Government on this course of action after an investigation revealed the facility could be used for espionage.
National security concerns meant
that ministers were given no prior notice of this week’s plan for an amendment to legislation that’s already passing through the Oireachtas.
The Government has no other powers to interfere in the planning process, and has refused to assume such powers to intervene in the housing crisis or assist high-employing multinationals.
However, the matter has been close to Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s heart since he stood with French President Emmanuel Macron to condemn Russia at a Brussels summit. They pushed for a tougher response to the nerve-agent attack on former Russian intelligence officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in the English city of Salisbury. A Russian embassy official was expelled in March in the wake of that attack and Irish diplomatic relations with the Russian Federation are at an historic low.
The ongoing building project at the Russian Embassy in the Dublin suburb of Rathgar has increased its size fivefold. Work to extend the 2,000sq.m 19th-century house on Orwell Road to 10,000sq.m began in 2015 after the Russian Ambassador to Ireland applied and received planning permission from Dublin City Council. Senior Garda sources said they investigated activities at the site and believe the expansion is ‘connected to spying’.
‘We believe ultimately the chief targets are our European neighbours and Britain – they’re genuine military powers,’ said a senior Garda source.
‘Spying doesn’t only involve the old manual techniques from John le Carré books. Technological spying and eavesdropping are now the major concerns. Our investigations into this expanded embassy were passed on to the Government at the highest level.’
Sources in Garda counter-intelligence units told the MoS they believe the FSB – the Russian spy successor to the Soviet KGB – will use the facility in Rathgar as a base. One minister told the MoS the reason the Justice Minister brought the memo to Cabinet on Wednesday without prior notice was due to ‘the high level of security around this issue’.
The amendment – which is being proposed by the Department of Justice in conjunction with the Department of Housing, Planning and Environment – will be brought to the Planning and Development Bill (Amendment) 2016 which will be at report [final] stage in Seanad Éireann on Tuesday.
‘Eoghan Murphy and Charlie Flanagan are due to announce the measure next week,’ said a minister.
‘The amendment will allow the Government to block planning permission for any project it deems a threat to the security of Ireland. Such things operate in other jurisdictions.
‘It is clear that this all applies to the Russian Embassy,’ he said.
‘It’s a planning bill that is already working its way through the Oireachtas and the Government is going to add an amendment to… It is a first in Ireland, fighting international espionage through the planning process.’
The building project at the Russian Embassy features the construction of additional accommodation and two three-storey over-basement buildings for embassy staff. It includes underground parking for 23 cars and plans for a playground, tennis courts and volleyball courts in the grounds.
A Garda source said: ‘We expect that the Russians will use this as a base for spying on larger powers in Europe. However there are many US multinationals here and their activities interest the Russians too.
‘This expanded embassy, understandably, concerns our closest neighbours and closest security partners, the British.’
Concerned at press reports about the extension Ambassador Yury Filatov invited journalists to the embassy in March. He said the expansion was merely so his staff no longer have to work in cramped conditions.
He said any mention of potential spy activities here was ‘just part of the whole hype around the Skripal affair in Great Britain’.
‘The overall effort is to launch a massive propaganda campaign against Russia,’ he said, adding the UK government expulsion of diplomats was an ‘absurd, hostile action’.
Fianna Fail Foreign Affairs spokesman Niall Collins said his party would back the change. ‘The Russians have never explained why they need such a large extension to their embassy… We will support the amendment and any attempts to stop this kind of needless development.’
‘Ireland fighting international espionage’
Justice: Minister Charlie Flanagan
expansion: The Russian Embassy in Rathgar