But with the bizarre murder of a Hamas leader in Dubai involving at least two dozen people suspected of being Israeli Mossad agents – half a dozen of whom were carrying false Irish passports – Ireland has been catapulted into the front line of international espionage and intrigue.
The Israeli ambassador to Dublin was called in after Dubai. He knew nothing of course.
A Garda inquiry is now underway, and Taoiseach Brian Cowen has warned that the Dubai affair has serious implications for the security of Irish citizens traveling abroad.
It’s all a far cry from the major concern of law enforcement since the Irish state was set up, that being mainly the activities of republican and loyalist paramilitary groups.
Ireland has no secret service, James Bond-style agents zooming around in fast cars fitted with machineguns, no CIA, FBI, MI5 or MI6.
What passes for a secret service fund in every government budget is simply used to pay informers.
There is a military intelligence arm, Army G-2 intelligence, or the Directorate of Intelligence. Along with the Garda Siochana’s Special Branch, it is the prime agency charged with intelligence issues.
The two haven’t always seen eye to eye, but the have stayed on the job down the years despite some glaring failures.
These included the Provisional IRA landing over a hundred tons of Libyan weapons in the 1980s, and the murderous 1974 Dublin and Monaghan bombings by loyalists, both with suspected British involvement.
But G-2 and the Special Branch have had successes too in combating terrorism and many lives have undoubtedly been saved by operations against island-grown paramilitaries.
Historically, the Special Branch has been to the forefront in fighting the intelligence war, but G-2 has played its part too. In one operation, it sent six agents undercover into Northern Ireland, some of them reporting on loyalists bringing in arms by fishing boat.
The Garda dampened down the IRA during World War 11, while G-2, under the legendary Colonel Dan Bryan, rounded up over a dozen Nazi agents sent to Ireland by the Abwehr, German military intelligence.
In the mid-1950s, G-2 formed links with the CIA, with frequent exchanges of information on suspected spies, terrorists, Communists or those seen as being radically left wing.
The relationship was so successful for the Irish side that G-2 ultimately discouraged the CIA from sending a permanent agent to Dublin from London, insisting it could get all the information it needed without American assistance.
The relationship between G-2 and the CIA continued, even if at times the concerns of both seemed ludicrous.
G-2 opened a file on that notorious revolutionary from Mullingar, the late singer Joe Dolan, after he had performed in Moscow in 1978.
The Garda, meanwhile, established a firm relationship with the FBI and most senior officers were trained at the FBI Academy in Quantico.
While the Irish were learning overseas, some from overseas were learning things in Ireland. Israel’s Mossad were observing what the Libyans were doing in Ireland, while G-2 agents with Irish UN forces kept an eye on what the Libyans, and Mossad too, were up to in Lebanon.
As the new century dawned, Irish intelligence efforts began to focus more on radical Islamic terrorism.
The Garda Middle Eastern desk, formerly known as the Red Squad, was plunged into the center of a major investigation involving the CIA and FBI after the discovery of a millennium plot to blow up Los Angeles airport.
The arrest of six men in Dublin produced invaluable information for the U.S. agencies and linked one of them to a man captured on the U.S.-Canadian border with a carload of explosives.
CIA and FBI agents attended briefings in Garda headquarters in the Phoenix Park as house searches pointed to Islamic groups being given logistical support in the Republic, including money, and, ironically in the light of recent events, fake passports.
The 9/11 attacks led to the identifying of around a group of 40 individuals in Ireland suspected of extreme Islamic views and who are now under constant surveillance.
They are suspected of having links with the Egyptian Islamic Jihad and Algerian GIA, both allied to al-Qaeda. There is a view that that Ireland is, or could be used, as a rest and recreation sanctuary by jihadists.
Garda and Army intelligence numbers have been boosted as a result, along with Irish Army Special Forces. And while Ireland has no jet fighters to defend against hijacked airliners, Dutch anti-aircraft guns and radars were bought with this in mind, though not all were impressed.
The answer by military officers when, at one point, they were asked by the government how do we defend the country was a simple one: “give us a squadron of F-16s.” The plea was ignored.
Army Chief of Staff, Lieutenant General Jim Sreenan, meanwhile, asserted that Army intelligence and the Garda had to remain vigilant to the threat posed by Islamic extremists in Ireland who might seek to launch an attack on Britain using Ireland as a back door.
Despite all the concern over Islamic fundamentalists, relationships with Israel have remained tetchy because of actions by Israeli troops or Israeli-baked militia in South Lebanon against Irish troops, or, more recently, because of Israel’s war in Gaza, which is not popular with Irish public opinion
Despite this, the Israeli defense industry has done well from the Irish in recent years, winning lucrative contracts for helmets, surveillance equipment, ammunition, and robot spy planes.
Then came Dubai.
Hamas military commander Mahmoud Al Mabhouh was murdered in a Dubai hotel on January 20. Seven of the killers had false Irish passports, the rest having passports from other countries, including Britain.
The numbers of real Irish passports were used along with false names, addresses and photographs. Irish passport owners whose numbers were used had traveled abroad, but not in the Middle East.
One of the agents involved in the assassination, giving his name as Kevin Daveron, used an address at Elgin Road, Ballsbridge, an empty house owned by a brother of former taoiseach, Albert Reynolds.
The house is only 260 meters from the Israeli embassy.
Some have speculated that Dubai was payback for Israel over Irish passports given to Palestinians eighteen years ago when rich Arabs loaned Albert Reynolds’ pet food company over
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