Wednesday 25 April 2018

Changes abroad will now reinvent diplomacy here

The EU plans to create its own European diplomatic service, writes Eamon Delaney

The fallout continues from the announced closure -- for cost-cutting reasons -- of three foreign missions by the Department of Foreign Affairs. The Government has announced that it is to close Ireland's embassies in Iran, East Timor, and the Holy See in Rome. The shutting of our mission to the Holy See has upset those who see the move as a petty manifestation of the deterioration in the State's relationship with the Vatican over clerical child abuse investigations. However, even during the times of better relationship with Rome, the Holy See embassy was always regarded as something as an anachronism, given that Ireland already had an embassy in Rome itself. It was seen as merely an obligation of the Vatican's effectively being a separate state, inside Italy. But, in an era of fluid sovereignty, and changing diplomatic practices (of which, more anon), the idea of a separate embassy to the Vatican was seen as outdated.

The bigger question is why the Government didn't avail of the opportunity to close, or downgrade, more embassies. The original Bord Snip report recommended that our embassy network be cut from 75 missions to 55, cutting about 65 staff and saving €14m a year. Although our foreign service is actually relatively slimline compared to other European countries, and has undoubtedly given great service over the years, there is no doubt that, as in so many things, we may have got ahead of ourselves during the Celtic Tiger years in terms of expansion and spending and opened embassies in all sorts of places. Embassies were opened in most applicant EU countries, but also in Singapore and Thailand, and in African destinations such as Mozambique, to deal with Ireland's extensive (and much more expensive, at €700m per year, aid programme.) The embassy in East Timor, for example, now to be closed, was opened purely because of the Irish connection to the independence campaign there.

The total cost of our diplomatic service is about €100m a year, with 340 officials serving abroad and a further 300 staff recruited locally. Not a huge sum compared to other government spends, but it can be an expensive way to do a business which in many ways has been overtaken by modern communications and political multilateralism. Ambassadors are generally of the senior rank, which means the Department of Foreign Affairs has up to 32 assistant secretaries serving abroad, a fact noted by the McCarthy report. Most governments departments have four of five assistant secretaries at the top of their departments serving at home. Why not reinvent the antiquated and often expensive world of old-style diplomacy by sending less senior, and thus less expensive figures, abroad as ambassadors? And why not double up, or peel back missions to fewer staff?

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