TO CLOSE AN EMBASSY

Ireland is to close three diplomatic missions, including the Embassy to the Vatican. The
announcement last week has been received with gung ho  enthusiasm by the Catholic –bashers and mixed
feelings by many others I have no mixed feelings. Closing two of the three is a
mistake.

Take the Vatican first. Whatever the faults and failings of the Vatican’s
reaction to the child abuse issue, which is a horizontal one affecting the
Catholic Church in a number of countries, and is something that  Rome will have to work out satisfactorily,
there are other issues. Nationally, the majority of the Irish population remain
Catholic, with all that that implies. Like it or not, they have views.  While all have been shocked by the clerical
sexual abuse saga (still very much a small part – though high profile – of
those accused and/or convicted of sexual abuse of children)  poking the Pope in the eye, metaphorically,
will  not necessarily sit well with them.

Internationally, the Vatican provides a focal point for the
world’s one billion plus Catholics, the second largest religious grouping in
the world, and one which  includes powerful and numerous communities across the globe. It can tap into
missionaries, locally based churches and lay communities. It appoints all
Catholic bishops worldwide, including the Irish ones. Internationally also the
Vatican’s diplomatic network is extensive and highly regarded. The net result
is that the Vatican is a storehouse of information and analysis and is regarded
as an important ”listening post” and  a very useful resource to tap into, something diplomats on the ground can avail
of. As a country with a small diplomatic service, and limited resources,
Ireland should be looking to foster links of this type, not walk away from
them.

Certainly the Irish Embassy to the Vatican “yields no
economic return”. It never did. This presumably applies also to the large
number of states which maintain resident embassies to the Holy See, but there
is no sign that they are rushing to close their missions. Yet the Vatican IS
important to Ireland, as witness the curious decision to seek to appoint the
Secretary General of the Department, i.e. Ireland’s most senior diplomat, as
non-resident Ambassador, with the implication that he/she will have the full
resources of the Department available should the need arise.

Normally a non-resident accreditation is of an existing, usually adjacent,  ambassador, whose
functions are confined to at most several visits per annum and who receives
little or no extra resources for the secondary accreditation. Since Rome, one
of our relatively large Embassies (i.e. more than one person and a dog) is not
acceptable to the Vatican, the judgement has been made that none of the other
diplomatic missions nearby, which are stretched in any event, would have the resources
– time or personnel – to handle the Vatican. Clearly the thinking is that
another brouhaha like the recent one would need to be handled seriously. Yet
that begs the question why close the Embassy. Surely a more subtle approach,
such as leaving the post of Ambassador vacant
for a year or two, could have been tried. The cost of keeping the
mission open would hardly break a broke nation.

Timor-Leste was never more than a development aid office in
any event and it appears that sufficient progress has taken place there to
judge than this office can be closed.

That leaves Iran. The decision to close our Embassy there is
mystifying. So, trade has not lived up to expectations. Surely the answer,
shouted from politicians and officialdom in respect of everything else, is to
try harder and work harder. And if Iran is indeed a tough nut from the trade
point of view, it will hardly prove easier without some local knowledge and
presence on the ground. Last year, incidentally, we exported €81 million plus
to Iran; it was the fifth year in a row in which exports increased and they are
now significantly higher than the lows of a decade ago. Our total exports to
eight of the twelve post-2004 EU accession states over the past three years
have averaged €300 million per year; do the maths.

Iran has a proud history. It was and is a significant player
in the region. It is, moreover, the nineteenth largest economy in the world,
roughly the size, in GDP terms, of Australia and Poland and has an estimated
GDP per head of $13,000. It has a population close to 80 million, is
strategically and geopolitically important and, inter alia with its energy
reserves, is a potential regional superpower. It is also fast developing a nuclear
capability which could see it become the second Islamic nuclear power with
possible  profound  ramifications for the whole Middle East. From
what one can judge there is considerable social ferment within the country
which could presage change sooner rather than later. By closing the embassy
Ireland will be shutting herself off from monitoring developments there and
will certainly be unable to interact, influence or mediate, even to a limited
degree.

These closures have been justified by  the declared necessity
to implement cuts across the board in view of the current woeful financial situation.
The Department of Foreign Affairs, minus the development cooperation element, is one of the smaller government
departments. Most of its budget is spent on the upkeep of missions abroad,
rents salaries and allowances. Savings can only be made, therefore, by closing
overseas  missions. The McCarthy Report
actually recommended that Ireland should reduce the number of its overseas
missions from 76 to 55, without, as far as I can see, specifying which or why.
If three is the extent of the closures, we should be relieved. Ireland has a
relatively small, relatively inexpensive foreign service. Most of the missions
are tiny – one or two diplomats with limited clerical back-up – and are
expected to deliver on a varied range of duties, including helping Irish
citizens in distress. It should be noted that most criticisms of this
“consular” role either misrepresent what embassies can and should do in
situations or occur in countries where Ireland has no direct representation on
the ground – as was the case in Libya earlier this year.

It seems illogical to me to close any of Ireland’s  missions at a time when the message from the
politicians seems to be “Export or Perish”. Indeed look at where we are NOT
represented directly. In South and Central America we have three (3!) resident
embassies, Mexico, Brazil and Argentina; Mexico, with three diplomats, is
doubly accredited to Cuba, Colombia, El Salvador, Peru and Venezuela! We have
one embassy in North Africa (Egypt). We have no one on the ground in six of the
world’s 35 largest economies, including Indonesia (15), Thailand (25), Pakistan
(27), Colombia (28), the Philippines(32) and Venezuela (34). Strategically
placed embassies have multiple secondary accreditations (Saudi Arabia,
Singapore, Moscow), which they try to service with two or three diplomats. Canada, with three diplomats, also
covers Jamaica! And now we are to close Iran.

If we ARE to close missions how about a radical approach by thinking
outside the box a little? It has been argued that the Vatican embassy was a
sort of sacred cow (pun not intended), which has now been slain. In the context
of examining Ireland’s diplomatic representation, and in particular getting
more for the buck, another sacred cow might be looked at. This is the mantra
that Ireland should have an embassy in every EU member state. And we have. This
was ok when the EU was Twelve, or even Fifteen, but it is now Twenty Seven,
with Croatia poised to join and a queue from the Balkans round the corner. IF
yielding economic return is to be the criterion for an embassy on the ground,
take those trade figures I mentioned above. Do we need three embassies in the
Baltics? Do we need embassies in those of the Central European member states
included in the eight bracketed together in our trade statistics? Five or six
of these missions could be closed or consolidated freeing up the diplomatic
staff for redeployment elsewhere, either in new posts or to beef up missions
such as China, India or Russia, whereextra staff dedicated to commercial activity would not go amiss and
where we have some way to go before the law of diminishing returns kicks in.

Another avenue to be looked at might be to pursue the
Vatican option and cover certain posts from HQ. We already cover a number of
small states from our UN Mission in New York. In the era of Internet and emails,
and in view of the additional layers of frequent  meetings of officials across all areas of EU
competence and in areas of political and judicial cooperation, do we really
need Irish embassies on the ground in e.g. Scandinavia? Sweden closed its
embassy in Dublin several years ago, without any dire consequences. Why should
we not follow suit? An officer of appropriate rank sitting at H.Q. – where
there is already a regional desk system in operation – could surely function as
efficiently, and at far less cost, than an officer en poste. The Nordic posts
could be closed , with the exception of one, to provide consular assistance as required.
We can probably suppress one or two other EU missions, like Belgium and
Luxembourg since the our mission to the EU in Brussels can cover; ditto Switzerland
, with our UN mission in Geneva to cover. But No! Shock, Horror! Last year
Belgium was our second largest export market in the EU after Britain, and Switzerland
was our second largest non-EU market. If economic return is to be the criterion
then these missions, small as they are, definitely justify their existence.

The last two paragraphs were tongue-in-cheek. I hope the
point is taken up.. Ireland’s diplomatic service has a job to do. One element
of this is trade promotion in the broadest sense. But this cannot be allowed to
degenerate into hucksterism. Our diplomats represent Ireland and are required
to maintain appropriate levels of dignity and behaviour. Few would have it any
other way. The immediate financial savings in closing Tehran and the Vatican are
miniscule and may cost us more in the longer run. Let us hope there will be a more
critical and public scrutiny of any proposals for further closures.

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