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Our economising must include foreign service

IT IS no surprise that Fine Gael MEP Gay Mitchell has called for a review of the State's ambassadorial presence in Europe, a suggestion which comes just as the Government embarks on a diplomatic drive to restore our battered international reputation. Our foreign service is one area that has been more or less ignored when we look at areas where cuts can be made. During the boom, the Irish foreign service grew dramatically, but now in times of serious hardship, some serious changes should be considered.

During the Tiger years, Irish embassies were opened in all sorts of places. The idea was to have full embassies in all EU member states, and even applicant EU states, but we also opened embassies in Singapore and Thailand, and in many African destinations such as Mozambique, mindful of our extensive aid programme. We even opened an embassy in Timor Leste, formerly East Timor, purely because of our emotional connection to the independence campaign there. All a bit extravagant.

Some of our missions are in places that most Irish taxpayers would be hard put to find on a map. And for most of these outposts, there is the upkeep of the diplomats, the movement of goods and families, and the State paying for their children in schools. Rightly or wrongly, it is often regarded as the 'icing on the cake' of the public sector.

Defenders of the Irish foreign service argue that it is relatively slimline compared to many other European countries, but this doesn't mask its seemingly unnecessary expansion in recent years and the seniority of people we send abroad -- including 32 assistant secretaries, a fact noted by the McCarthy report.

And there is 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 and which even the Canadian media commented on, 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 embassy buildings and residences. As well as the €4.4m in Ottawa, €7m was spent in the Hague, and in Pretoria an impressive €1.3m was spent on a new Ambassador's residence, just over the €1.2m spent in Mexico the previous year.

The total cost of our diplomatic service is about €100m a year, with 340 officials serving abroad and a further 300 staff recruited locally. 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. It rightly pointed out that the EU is developing its own diplomatic service, and that the department should "embrace the opportunity that this supranational service will present to further rationalise Ireland's network of overseas missions". This European External Action Service will, in effect, replace or at least supplant the member states' existing diplomatic services, although its precise future under a shambolic and now divided EU is uncertain.

However, already other European countries have begun cutting back, such as Sweden which closed its embassy in Dublin, although we still keep ours in Stockholm. In an era of enhanced communications and travel, most governments can make direct contact with each other, bypassing the increasingly outmoded rituals of diplomacy. This is especially so among European countries. Hence, Gay Mitchell's suggestion. Stressing that we "cover more ground with the resources", Mitchell questioned why, for example, we needed 10 ambassadors to be resident in five European countries.

Ireland has four people of ambassador rank in Brussels -- the ambassador to Belgium, two permanent representatives to the EU and an ambassador to the Political and Security Committee of the EU. Meanwhile, we have two ambassadors in France -- Paris and the Council of Europe in Strasbourg -- and two in Rome, for Italy and the Holy See. (The idea of a separate and palatial embassy to the Holy See has long been a bone of contention.) Given that Strasbourg and Luxembourg are two hours apart by car, Mitchell suggested that one ambassador could cover both posts, while one of the three representatives to the EU could double as ambassador to Belgium. Such a reorganisation would free up ambassadors for reassignment to new strategic duties such as trade promotion.

And this is the point. During the Nineties, an idea called Ireland House was developed at embassy locations, a 'one-stop shop', housing officials from agencies such as Enterprise Ireland and Bord Bia working in tandem with our diplomats. It happens in many locations, most especially the US, but it should be intensified elsewhere. This would be more valuable than opening full Irish embassies in places like Timor Leste and Mozambique, which quite frankly we cannot afford right now.

Sunday Independent