Monday 24 October 2016

Our embassies are foreign treasures

A former public servant on the rarefied world of diplomacy

Published 19/07/2015 | 02:30

Irish Embassy in Rome
Irish Embassy in Rome

News that Irish embassies abroad are worth a small fortune is not surprising. Many of our 'Missions Abroad' have been long established in the most prestigious of foreign addresses and, with rising international property prices, they have become an enviable asset. On Avenue Foch, near the Arc de Triomphe, the Irish Embassy in Paris, housed in the gilded plasterwork of a 'hotel particulier', is worth an estimated €45m - making it the most valuable diplomatic property abroad owned by the State.

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According to new figures, the sum total value of such embassies is nearly €90m. The Department of Foreign Affairs has 12 properties abroad which it uses as diplomatic missions, while renting in others, including high rents in cities like New York and Brussels. It is thus worth buying and holding on to such properties: in the 1980s, with Government cutbacks, the State foolishly undersold buildings in countries where they later had to reopen embassies.

The department has become a lot cannier at surviving cutbacks, and we saw this in the recent crisis. Despite the demands for embassy closures, we managed to keep open most of our missions, included the new ones opened during the boom years.

There is a great story about economist Colm McCarthy, during his An Bord Snip period, when he proposed a cull the number of Irish embassies to save money, especially those that were not very important. But they are 'all very important' said a senior mandarin, sniffily.

"Okay," said the famously robust McCarthy. "Let's close London, Paris, Beijing and Washington then." "Oh," said the open-mouthed mandarin, back tracking. The implication was clear: they are not all equally important. Not by a long shot.

But the reality is that Irish diplomats work hard and are the first people to be relied on when there is a kidnapping or dangerous incident involving Irish nationals abroad. They also administer an extensive overseas development aid programme. However, there is also a public perception, however unfair, that such State officials live in a 'different' and often more pampered world.

This wasn't helped in recent years by reports of the expensive reupholstering of official buildings and residences abroad, such as the rebuild of the ambassador's house in Canada, which came to a whopping €4.4m. Even the Canadian media commented on the job, asking was this not a country (Ireland) which was supposed to be broke! The fit-out was a hangover from the Tiger years, when we splashed out millions revamping Irish embassy buildings and residences. There was also €4.4m spent in Ottawa, €7m in the Hague, and in Pretoria, South Africa an impressive €1.3m was spent on a new ambassador's residence.

The total cost of our diplomatic service is about €100m a year, with 340 officials serving abroad and a further 300 staff recruited locally. But the EU is developing its own diplomatic service, which it is hoped would eventually overlap with and even supplant that of the individual member states - and thus save money.

In my own time, as a diplomat, I worked in and visited many Irish embassies, which ranged from pedestrian office blocks in hot cities to impressive old buildings such as the Irish embassy in Washington DC, with its large balcony and sweeping interior staircase adorned with artwork from the Irish National Gallery. Such exhibits were in circulation throughout all embassies and residences. The idea is that such embassies recreate their country in another place - with appropriate 'ex-pat' furnishings, media and personnel. But the buildings and their gardens and employees are also, crucially, an actual legal extension of this country, and so have diplomatic immunity. Hence, the likes of Julian Assange can take refuge in the Ecuadoran embassy in London and not be arrested - unless he leaves. And any diplomat can, technically, ignore parking tickets.

While embassies represent their countries in a foreign capital, consulates do so in other larger cities, such as in the US. Ambassadors residences are their homes but are also used for diplomatic work and entertaining and can often be even more impressive than the embassies, such as in Washington, where the residence has an outdoor swimming pool and ornate garden, around which I pushed wheelchair-bound James Brady, the US politician who took the bullet for Ronald Reagan in an assassination attempt in 1981. He was a regular at the Irish embassy parties.

"Cut their champagne allowance!" Charlie Haughey is supposed to have said ruefully, as he once left Iveagh House, the sumptuous headquarters of the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) on St Stephen's Green.

Haughey was expressing the suspicion that our foreign service thought they were a breed above the humble public service norm, but as even the wily Haughey knew, the foreign service is a valuable national asset and much of the talk of champagne, or even the awful clichés about Ferrero Rocher, is greatly exaggerated.

Even if the idea of diplomacy becomes increasingly redundant in an era of increased travel and communications, at least we will have the sumptuous buildings.

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