Calamity Coughlan; Tanaiste in the Eye of Yet Another Political Storm as She Snubs Russia's Second-in-Command and Sends a Junior Minister Instead

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Byline: Niamh Lyons and Will Stewart in Moscow

TANAISTE Mary Coughlan is embroiled in an embarrassing diplomatic incident after snubbing her Russian counterpart.

Miss Coughlan, who is also Minister for Enterprise, was due to lead an Irish delegation to Moscow on a five-day trade mission this month.

But she has now dropped out of the trip and is being replaced by a junior minister - and no one thought to inform the authorities in Russia.

The Irish mission comes two months after Russia's Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak visited Ireland as part of a reciprocal arrangement.

With Miss Coughlan now being replaced by Billy Kelleher, the Junior Minister for Trade and Commerce, on the return visit, officials in the Kremlin are said to be furious about the breach of diplomatic protocol. Last night, sources in Moscow expressed surprise that Miss Coughlan was not heading the delegation, and made it clear that the Kremlin had not been officially informed of the switch.

A spokesman for Mr Kozak said: 'We don't know about this shift yet.

Two weeks ago, we had an official letter where it was stated the head of the Irish delegation to Russia would be Miss Coughlan.

'We cannot comment about this issue until it is presented to us officially.

Nor can we discuss the reasons for it as they are a matter of the internal policy of that country.' Another senior Kremlin official pointed out that the downgrading of the Irish delegation was surprising, stressing Miss Coughlan herself had made clear the significance of the Irish-Russian committee meeting being held for the first time at deputy premier level.

She made the comments, which were widely reported by Russia's semi-official news agency ITARTASS, during Vice Prime Minister Kozak's visit to Dublin in March.

Mr Kozak headed a large Russian delegation at the 7th session of the Russian Federation/Ireland Joint Economic Commission and met the Tanaiste during his visit.

Observers in Moscow have pointed out that the Russians attach great importance to protocol and that the replacement of the deputy premier with a junior minister is bound to lead to less importance being given to the meeting in Moscow.

'Especially surprising, is that the Irish do not appear to have informed the Russians of the downgrading and the reasons for it,' said one. 'This is somewhat puzzling.' Sources close to Mr Kozak stressed that the change will not lead to any difference in the treatment of the Irish mission when it goes to Moscow.

'This new appointment doesn't change our attitude to working within this mission,' said one official. However, he did not believe Mr Kozak had met previously one-to-one with Billy Kelleher, who will now lead the delegation.

He said: 'They may have met during Mr Kozak's visit to Ireland.

Dmitry Kozak could have met him among other representatives of the

Irish team, but there was no separate appointment. …