Revelations that the Irish police have been investigating serious allegations of abuse and ‘slavery’ in some foreign embassies in Dublin – see link below- once again throws light on the protected world of national embassies, Ambassadors residences and the ancient but powerful concept of ‘diplomatic immunity.’  I will be talking to Pat Kenny about it all on Newstalk radio tomorrow morning. This is a piece I wrote about the phenomenon in 2004 in the Irish Independent.

Undiplomatic secrets behind our Embassy doors

A court case this week gave us a unusually candid glimpse into the normally discreet world of diplomacy. Eamon Delaney wasn’t surprised – he says our Foreign Service has always been rife with big egos and private fiefdoms

The image many of us have of the world of diplomacy is one akin to a Ferrero Rocher advert. A picture jumps to mind of champagne receptions where everyone wears dinner suits, has a cut-glass accent and is awfully polite.

However, an amazing case before the courts this week has given us a glimpse of a darker side to the diplomatic service. It concerns a diplomat seeking to overturn a departmental verdict that he bullied a junior colleague at the Irish Embassy in Paris. The junior diplomat took a case against him and won in Dublin. The case is particularly embarrassing in that his original complaint was not supported by the then Ambassador in Paris, Padraic MacKernan, a former ambassador to Washington and, indeed, a former secretary of the department itself.

What is perhaps most surprising is that such disputes haven’t come out into the open before. Over the years, the Irish Foreign Service, with its secret and privileged culture, has been rife with egos and private fiefdoms. It is also full of eccentrics, and otherwise talented misfits, who stay in ‘the service’ and technically can’t be fired.

This is a department in which a young female diplomat sought, and was granted, a sanity-saving transfer from one city to another to avoid the bullying of one notorious ambassador – an extraordinary character whose antics would be front-page news today and would never survive the present standards of office decorum and behaviour.

The rituals of diplomacy, invented by the courtly French, are old and elaborate. Unfortunately, the effect of being called ‘Your Excellency’ and being treated like a small monarch in foreign countries can go to the heads of even our most modest public servants. The notion of diplomatic immunity and presentation of credentials (to the head of state) adds to the atmosphere.

Nor are our politicians protected from their whims. In the early 1990s, there were a few famous incidents when Irish ambassadors caused great consternation for visiting politicians. The then Minister of State, Dermot Ahern, felt compelled to complain about one ambassador after the latter persisted, at an embassy dinner, in claiming that “half the cabinet were having affairs”. The minister’s wife was so upset that she reportedly left in tears, and the ambassador was called home to account for himself. Home is Iveagh House, the department’s elaborate and secretive headquarters on St Stephens Green, otherwise known as HQ among its officers and staff.

One of the most celebrated diplomatic incidents involved one ambassador, a forceful man who had had a long and difficult relationship with Charles Haughey. When Haughey visited, the ambassador apparently left him waiting at the airport for half an hour. Later, he ‘lost’ the Taoiseach. Challenged by Minister Ray Burke to do something about it, the ambassador apparently told Burke exactly where to go – to the cheers of public servants everywhere.

Little wonder then that later the secretary of the department, Padraic MacKernan, felt able to face down another minister, David Andrews, over the matter of departmental promotions – a stance unheard of in other government departments. Andrews wanted to add names not on the list approved by the department’s all-powerful Management Affairs Committee (MAC), and when this created a public row, Andrews protested to the Dail that he was not merely “a rubber stamp”.

This was in the fine tradition of the department’s standing up to their political masters. In 1987, a group of mandarins meeting at the posh Grey Door restaurant drew up a manifesto opposed to the changes being planned by the incoming Taoiseach Charles Haughey. Haughey planned to remove direct responsibility for Northern Ireland and European affairs from Iveagh House, and back to his own department. This elaborate, and not very effective, protest was known as ‘the Grey Door manifesto’.

In fairness to MacKernan, and his dispute with Mr Andrews, the system of promotions and postings he was presiding over is a delicately balanced one. They have to decide who will get on with whom, and who will be suited to what particular foreign culture and climate, not to mention the particular type of work involved – hugely different in Lagos than, say, Brussels. They would be trying to avoid precisely the kind of bust-up in Paris, that has found its way into the Irish courts.

The challenges our diplomats face abroad are not just strange foods, intense heat and unusual driving habits. There can also be serious dangers. Some time ago, a group were hijacked and robbed at gunpoint in Brazil, while on their way to meet the visiting Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern. The four, including John Campbell, the Irish Ambassador in Mexico and Sile Maguire, the Vice Consul, had stopped for a puncture. Given Brazil’s reputation, we can at least be grateful they were left unharmed.

Sile Maguire has since been under other pressures, being called as a witness in the trial of the Colombia Three. She claims to have been with one of them elsewhere when he was alleged to have been training guerrillas in the jungle. Hazards such as the Brazilian ambush are not uncommon, especially in countries with a volatile political situation, and our diplomats have got into dangerous scrapes in the Lebanon, Palestine and South America. One diplomat was nearly killed trying to investigate the whereabouts of Irish hostage, Brian Keenan.

To be sent abroad as a diplomat is to experience a wide range of different cultures and lifestyles, and you don’t know what you’ll end up with. This will certainly affect working relations within an embassy. Or, indeed, personal relationships and many’s the marriage and family which has felt the strain.

In some of the places where diplomats find themselves, it is the police themselves who create the nuisance, or an overzealous military – which is why diplomatic immunity and CD plates are so important.

In ‘hardship postings’ – such as Iran, Beijing or Saudi Arabia – diplomats usually live in ‘diplomatic compounds’, where social and working life is restricted to the embassies and their families mixing with each other. A sort of separate law often applies to these luxury ‘ghettoes’. Or no law at all.

In Beijing, for example, the Chinese didn’t seem to care what the dreaded ‘internationalists’ were doing to each other. A former colleague tells the story of how, at one stage, the daughter of an American diplomat had been the subject of a serious sexual assault by some Africans. When the Chinese authorities were unable, or unwilling, to take action against this African embassy and its offending diplomats, the US embassy sent some of their resident marines over to sort them out.

The Africans, of course, were probably claiming ‘diplomatic immunity’. This is a centuries-old custom which allows diplomats to remain immune from prosecution in the host country. It is a noble tradition and dates from the time when the first people who got attacked, when a war occurred between states, were the unfortunate diplomats.

However, the concept has been widely abused. In the US, the Cubans and Iraqis used it to avoid paying parking fines; and in Ireland’s case, former passport officer, Kevin McDonald, tried to claim it when he was caught illegally selling passports to African prostitutes at the Irish Embassy in London.

There is also the diplomatic bag, a padlocked sack which a country sends to its relevant embassies abroad and which cannot be opened by the host authority. Again, dodgy regimes have used this to transport everything from a dictator’s jewels to hidden explosives.

Thankfully, in Ireland’s case, it has been for nothing more sinister than the latest impending statement by the Taoiseach or a minister. But in recent times, it has perhaps also had to bear the burden of reports and sworn affidavits concerning a bitter embassy dispute in Paris.