Ireland is to boost its overseas Embassies, but is unlikely to re-open its Embassy to the VaticanImage

The Hong Kong skyline (above)

‘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 talk of champagne, or even the more clichéd Ferrero Rocher, was always greatly exaggerated.

With the downturn, DFA has, like all other Departments, been subject to major cuts and changes, such as the transfer of almost all important EU affairs into the Taoiseach’s department. However, DFA is now going to get a 7% increase in its overseas representation budget, which could mean new Irish Embassies opening in South America and Africa, to take advantage of growing trade links in these now economically booming regions. It could also mean the reopening of the Irish Embassy in the Vatican, the closure of which created considerable controversy earlier this year.

Ireland has closed and reopened Embassies before, but in this case, re-opening the Vatican mission so soon after its closure, could look a bit indecisive and create confusion. There is no doubt that there was considerable equivocating about the original closure, which was criticised by many Fine Gael TDs and Catholic groups, as well as more secular observers. The Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore, who reacts to such criticism, immediately said that the decision could be reviewed in the near future. But to have reversed the decision then would have looked like a U-turn and so the Government wanted to let time pass. The time has now passed, and it is still hard to imagine a re-opening. We also closed our Embassy in Iran, after all, just as that hugely influential country re-assets itself internationally.

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This dithering over the Vatican Embassy (above) matched the way the decision was made in the first place, which was rushed though as a Departmental decision, in among a raft of other DFA proposals, and not discussed at Cabinet. Officially, the Holy See embassy was closed for economic reasons – we already had an Embassy in Rome- but the closure was also seen as an expression of the Government’s anger at the Vatican’s handling of our abuse scandals. Some have cited access to the Vatican’s global diplomatic network as a reason for keeping the Embassy, but the reality is that we live in highly open communicable age where such old style diplomatic contacts and information gathering have become increasingly obsolete.

Instead, new roles have developed for diplomats, in terms of connecting with the trade and cultural opportunities now seen in ‘new’ parts of the world, especially Asia and Africa.  DFA is recruiting its first batch of young diplomats for many years and a number of new embassies and consulates will be opened.  All this comes as Gilmore begins a ‘complete review’ of the country’s foreign policy and external relations, with the objective of engaging ‘as a responsible global actor and to protect the values and interests of our people’.

But cut through all this fine talk and trade and investment are the key priority. The days of diplomats as cultural observers and gin-sipping glad-handers have gone and been replaced by a perspective of raw commerce and the reality of intense global communications. And anyway, increasingly, Irish foreign policy, or Dutch foreign policy, doesn’t mean much beyond EU common foreign policy.

Proposed new Irish missions abroad would reflect these realities, and build on the strong inroads made by Irish businesses abroad, especially in Asia where our food produce is in such huge demand. There are possible openings for new embassies in Indonesia and Thailand and a consulate in Hong Kong. In Africa, a new embassy in Kenya could serve as a hub for the activity in east Africa of Irish Aid– an important (and expensive) part of the ‘Ireland’ brand.

There are only two Irish Embassies in South America so new missions in Colombia and Chile would double that, while a consulate in Istanbul would plug into the major rise in Turkey’s economic and regional influence. Such outposts should be seen as pioneer stations for Irish economic activity and cultural influence. The days of a State blithely opening an Embassy in every other country has gone – unless you’re a spendthrift dictator – and even Sweden has closed its Dublin Embassy. But in a fast changing world, with new and exciting opportunities, an export led country like Ireland should do everything it can to be in the places that matter. And it’s hard to see the reopening of our Embassy to the Holy See as being a part of that.

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