Analysis: it started with De Valera giving a loan to the fledging communist state and has seen much intrigue over the decades

The invasion of Ukraine by Russia has galvanised popular support for the smaller Slavic nation's gallant efforts to blunt the advance of its enormous foe. A rare near-unanimity of opinion has seen NATO states, non-aligned nations and even the historically timorous United Nations General Assembly coalesce in condemnation of Russia and its president Vladimir Putin.

Often (if mistakenly) described as 'neutral’ in such matters, Ireland has also been to the forefront in public denunciations of Russian actions. Indeed, if comments by both Taoiseach Micheál Martin and Tánaiste Leo Varadkar are barometers of the popular mood, the invasion of the Ukraine may yet provoke a re-evaluation of the largely unreal concept of Irish neutrality on the part of the general public.

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From RTÉ One News, Taoiseach tells Dáil that Putin has committed war crimes

These events have also heralded increased scrutiny of Irish politicians and political parties regarded as either pro-Putin in perspective, or as purveyors of ‘soft’ analyses of Russia’s military and clandestine intelligence activities. Despite a widespread view that the Russian political system supports a capitalist kleptocracy, most Irish politicians or activists once seen as sympathetic to Putin’s regime generally position themselves on the Left of our political spectrum.

That recent focus by mainstream media on Russian influence in Irish politics has also been accompanied by some social media speculation on the extent of Putin’s interference here. Such concerns are likely unwarranted and evidence of direct - or indirect - Russian meddling in Irish democracy is sparse.

Dev and the Russians

But this was not always the case. The former Soviet Union, of which Russia was the dominant player, displayed an intermittent but active interest in post-independence Irish political affairs. Contrary to likely assumptions, interference was not entirely a one way affair. Even before the establishment of the Irish State, the revolutionary Republic declared by Dáil Éireann in 1919 had an impact on internal Russian (and Ukrainian) events.

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From RTÉ History, David McCullagh on De Valera's time in America during the War of Independence

During his long sojourn in the United States, Éamon de Valera raised substantial funds (close to $55 million in today’s terms) for the independence movement; but notably failed to gain American recognition for the Irish republic. Representatives of Vladimir Lenin’s communist regime were in America at this time too, seeking recognition for the Soviet state, and to acquire Russian Imperial assets abroad. In the midst of a bloody civil war with Russian counter-revolutionaries, the Communists were in dire financial straits.

The opportunity arose for a quid pro quo between Irish and Russian representatives. In exchange for the Soviet’s recognition of Irish independence, de Valera agreed a loan of $20,000 (approximately $280,000 in modern terms) to the fledgling communist state. The Soviet representative, Ludwig Martens, provided the Irish a portion of the Russian Crown Jewels as collateral.

However, the Soviets later reneged on the deal. By the end of 1920, Moscow sought a formal trade arrangement with the United Kingdom, effectively discounting recognition of the rebel Republic. For years, the jewels remained hidden in a Dublin house (which was also the birthplace of Dracula author Bram Stoker) before coming into the possession of the Irish State in 1938. Following diplomatic dancing – and an Irish threat to sell the jewels at auction – the Soviet government finally repaid the loan in 1949.

15 Marino Crescent in Dublin, where the jewels were hidden

The tale is intriguing and entertaining, but also poignant. When the deal was struck in 1920, Lenin’s Bolsheviks were battling to wrest control of Ukraine from a joint Polish-Ukrainian force. Lenin’s victory birthed a Ukrainian Soviet Republic that would be dominated by Moscow for the next 70 years. The extent to which revolutionary Irish gold may have (indirectly) contributed to this unhappy outcome remains an open question.

Reds under Free State beds

Although the Republic failed to secure Soviet recognition, the outbreak of the Civil War in June 1922 initially offered fertile ground for Russian meddling in Britain’s backyard. Whilst a Soviet-aligned Communist Party of Ireland (CPI) existed, its membership was miniscule, and Moscow sought to exert influence through the larger anti-Treaty IRA

In August 1922 British communist interlocutors met anti-Treaty IRA officers in Dublin, and the basis for an agreement was reached. The Soviets were to provide finance and weapons and the anti-Treatyites would establish a new socialist political party in return. But the budding accord came to little and no Soviet weapons had arrived by the time anti-Treatyites accepted military defeat in May 1923.

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From RTÉ Archives, Dermot Keogh reports for RTÉ News on the unveiling of a 21 foot tall statue by sculptor Oisín Kelly of James Larkin on Dublin's O'Connell Street in 1979

With a direct paramilitary alliance proving fruitless, Soviet influence was re-directed to constitutional avenues. In late 1922, Irish communists scored a minor victory, when a Labour TD, Patrick Gaffney, defected to the CPI, though he lost his seat at the subsequent 1923 general election. This loss, together with faction fighting and personality clashes within the organisation (largely revolving around James Connolly’s son, Roddy), prompted a likely Soviet direction to dissolve the party, and support was transferred to James Larkin’s new Irish Worker League.

This too proved a poor choice on Moscow’s part. Larkin’s ferocious energy made him an attractive and a divisive figure in almost equal measure and not one suited to the Soviet style of unquestioning allegiance. More importantly, he was not an ideologically convinced ‘communist’ and, in the words of Emmet O’Connor, sought to ‘milk the Soviets’ for his own agenda. He broke with Moscow in 1929, and was not a founding member of the second Communist Party of Ireland established in 1933.

Whilst the first Irish Communist Party had been Soviet-aligned, the new entity was to be heavily Soviet-directed. It too had little success. Moscow’s desire that CPI members infiltrate the anti-Treaty IRA proved difficult to fulfil. By the mid-1930s much of the anti-Treaty IRA left-wing element had abandoned it and the paramilitary leadership now gravitated towards a more conservative position.

Although the Workers' Party followed the Soviet line on international affairs, it was never wholly a creature of the Kremlin

This first saw communists banned from the movement before the group formed an effective alliance with Nazi Germany in 1939. The party's failure to garner overt political support, or acquire significant covert influence in other spheres, meant Moscow shed few tears when the party wound up (partly due to internal disputes regarding Ireland’s wartime ‘neutrality’) in 1941.

The 'Soviet voice' in the Dáil

Moscow’s last, and most sustained, attempt to fish in Irish political waters came in the wake of the anti-Treaty IRA split in 1969. Initially, the Soviets were circumspect with respect to favouring either the Official IRA (OIRA) or the Provisional IRA (PIRA), despite the Provisional’s declared ‘anti-communism’. However, by 1972 Russian media was expressing a preference for the Marxist-orientated OIRA, and in 1974 the Soviets supplied weapons to the organisation.

As the 1970s progressed, the OIRA’s political wing, Official Sinn Féin (later the Workers’ Party), morphed into a Marxist-Leninist party. The reformation of another CPI in 1970 led to competition between it and the Workers’ Party for Moscow’s favour. However, some electoral success during the 1980s meant that the Workers’ Party became, to paraphrase John Mulqueen, the ‘Soviet voice’ in Dáil Éireann.

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From RTÉ Archives, RTÉ News profile by Charlie Bird of Tomás Mac Giolla, leader of the Worker's Party, following his resignation in 1988

In keeping with Soviet strategy, the Workers’ Party were believed to have inserted ‘un-declared’ members, or cultivated secret sympathisers, in various branches of the media, academia, and trades unions during the 1970s and 1980s. Amongst those institutions once regarded as ‘captured’ by the Officials was the Union of Students in Ireland and two former presidents, Pat Rabbitte and Eamon Gilmore, would later be prominent Workers’ Party politicians.

Although the Workers’ Party followed the Soviet line on international affairs, it was never wholly a creature of the Kremlin. Like others before it, the Party deviated from the expected script when domestic realities demanded.

This was particularly evident with respect to paramilitarism. By the early 1980s. Moscow had come to view the PIRA as a welcome thorn in Britain’s side. In contrast, the Workers’ Party denounced the Provisionals as a sectarian fascist movement, and sought to dissuade the Soviets from providing the PIRA with sympathetic media coverage. Despite these differences, the Workers' Party would remain a consistent promoter of Moscow’s perspective (and an occasional beneficiary of Soviet funding) until the dissolution of the USSR in 1991.

'Putin-simpatico syndrome'

The fall of the Soviet Union largely ended Russian intrigue in Ireland, for a time at least. However last year’s cyberattack on the HSE certainly opened eyes to the current threat posed by Russian-based – if not necessarily Russian-sponsored – hackers.

More worrying, perhaps, is the insidious threat posed by general complacency, and the ‘Putin-simpatico syndrome’ displayed by some parties and personalities in recent years. As political scientist Dr. Elaine Byrne has observed, the Ukraine is now on the ‘ideological frontline between authoritarianism and democracy’. Those in the Irish political constellation who have backed Russia instead of the EU on several occasions should certainly reflect on that.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ