Robert Mulhern


Skibbereen Eagle runs out Russians

In 1983, former Cork South West TD Jim O’Keeffe was involved in the discovery of a Russian spy ring in Dublin. His story now features in a new RTÉ documentary, writes Robert Mulhern

Skibbereen Eagle runs out Russians

A heavy rain shower has just passed leaving a glistening sheen on the steep incline leading up to the front door of Jim O’Keeffe’s home.

Up until his retirement in 2011, O’Keeffe was best known as the long-serving Fine Gael TD for Cork South West. In a time long before that he was an Irish minister at the centre of a bizarre, unheralded and unprecedented incident in Irish history.

It was an episode that earned him a nickname for a time - The Skibbereen Eagle - a homage to a local paper made famous for reporting on Russian affairs.

And back in 1983, this Russian spy thriller of a story followed the kidnapping of the racehorse Shergar, the IRA abduction of businessman Don Tidey and in Mallow, the Mexican jet stranded on the local racecourse.

Only Jim O’Keeffe ended up at the centre of an international, rather than national one, involving the Soviet Union and the US after a Russian spy ring was discovered in Dublin.

Back on the doorstep in Bandon, the bell rings a hollow sound in the morning still of the house. Less than a minute later O’Keeffe appears and opens the door.

“Hello,” he says heartily, extending his hand to shake.

“Come in,” he waves.

Closing the door behind him he says: “Since you called I’ve been looking back at some notes. It’s a long time since 1983,” he laughs.

“A lot has happened since!” Jim opens another door to an office at the front of the house where the morning sun, still low in the sky, beams like a spotlight through the window.

“Sit down,” he directs.

O’Keeffe shifts to get comfortable in his chair and leans in to his desk to study some prepared notes.

It’s more than 34 years since he received the most remarkable call of his career from then Taoiseach Garret Fitzerald who told him that Irish intelligence officials had been tracking a Russian spy ring in Dublin.

Fine Gael’s spokesman on Social Affairs Jim O’Keeffe was responsible for informing three Russians they were to be the first diplomats expelled from Ireland.
Fine Gael’s spokesman on Social Affairs Jim O’Keeffe was responsible for informing three Russians they were to be the first diplomats expelled from Ireland.

Gripped by the telephone conversation he learned that some of the spies were working under diplomatic cover out of the Soviet Embassy in Rathgar, Dublin where they were attempting to steal secrets about the US military.

Cold War hostilities between the then Soviet Union and the United States were still blowing icy cold then and had been exacerbated by the shooting down of a Korean commercial airliner by the Russians, just weeks before. The incident killed all 269 passengers on board.

The fall out led to a raft of diplomatic expulsions worldwide.

“And Ireland’s wasn’t immune,” declared O’Keeffe turning from the chair in his office.

“Yuri Andropov was the former KGB chief who had taken over as the leader of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU). He was the top man in the Soviet Union and there was an increase in spy activities worldwide.”

In an interview that preceded this morning’s meeting, a former Russian dissident now living in Cambridge England, declared that the security arm of the Soviet Communist Party - the KGB, had officers “all over the world” in 1983.

“Everywhere but Antarctica” he declared.

And Ireland in 1983 was viewed favourably by the Russians for being a nation hostile to Britain, their adversary, and also a place of sanctuary being a non-NATO member.

These conditions contributed to Irish territory being used by KGB agents to intercept and send back coded messages detailing sensitive US military operations.

“There was also the suggestion that radio traffic here would not have been monitored as closely as in other countries,” said O’Keeffe.

So in September of that year, Garret Fitzgerald’s government received a tip-off that Russian spies were gathering intelligence and a US double agent was dispatched to Dublin to trick the spies into handing over information on the US military — in of all places south Dublin’s Stillorgan Shopping Centre.

Following ‘the sting’ officials notified Garret Fitzgerald who typically would have called on the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Peter Barry. But he was out of the country at the time.

And as the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs at the time, O’Keeffe was given the unprecedented task of expelling three diplomats on behalf of the government.

“It had never happened before to me,” he said. “It had never happened before in the history of the state!

“I remember getting a call from Garret’s office saying they wanted to see me urgently.

“When I got there, he told me that I’d a job to do straight away and that I was the man to do it. They were my riding instructions from Garret.” The diplomats the centre of the episode were Viktor Lipassov, his wife Evdokia and the First Secretary of the Soviet Embassy in Dublin, Guennadi Saline.

Up to that point the diplomats had built a reputation for socialising around Temple Bar more than covert intelligence gathering.

As the news leaked out, it was accompanied by speculation in the Irish media that the spies were linking up with the IRA in the North, and making contact with Russian submarines off the coast of Donegal.

In Dublin, O’Keeffe summoned the Mikhail Sobolev from the Soviet Embassy for a showdown.

“He came to the office in Iveagh House,” he said.

“And I used the term that the three people in question had been involved in unacceptable activities that ‘weren’t in accordance with standards expected of diplomatic staff’. And he would have known full well that that meant spying.

“I remember him being very tough But if he was tough, I was equally tough.”

While the intense exchange played out in Dublin’s Iveagh House a bigger conversation had been playing out between the Irish Government and their US counterparts who disapproved of the Soviets use of Shannon as a refuelling pit stop for flights between Moscow and Fidel Castro’s Cuba.

By then Shannon was already a departure point for left-leaning Irish politicians from The Worker’s Party and The Irish Communist Party - both trying to build alliances with the Russians in Moscow.

But in O’Keeffe’s office in 1983, the exchange with Embassy official Mikhail Sobolev was exceptional for another reason other than the expulsion being a first with Soviet Union.

“I had also to make it clear that the wife was being expelled, not just because she was the wife of one of the diplomats” said O’Keeffe.

“Even though she was not a member of diplomatic staff, and they had quite big staff, she was directly involved in unacceptable activities and she herself was a KGB agent.

“I simply told him that I was delivering a message on behalf of the government of Ireland and that these three people were to be expelled. That was it - get ’em out!”

The story of Jim O’Keeffe’s 1983 expulsion of Russian Diplomats features in a new RTÉ Radio Documentary ‘Ireland and the KGB’ now available on RTÉ’s The Documentary on One website.

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