Gov­ern­ment will be given un­prece­dented pow­ers to block plan­ning as Rus­sia starts ex­pand­ing em­bassy

The Irish Mail on Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - By John Lee

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

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