Department warned Gilmore of 'negative fallout' of embassy closures

 

THE MINISTER for Foreign Affaris Eamon Gilmore was warned in recent months that closing embassies such as the Vatican could harm the national interest and result in negative political repercussions.

An unpublished review of overseas missions carried out by the Department of Foreign Affairs warned there were no “cost-free” candidates for closure.

It also cautioned that cash and staff savings would be very modest and partially offset by exit charges and the costs of setting up alternative arrangements to conduct international relations.

Last November, the Government decided to close the Irish embassy at the Vatican. It also closed its embassy in Iran and a representative office in Timor Leste. It said the move would save almost €1.2 million annually.

However, the internal review recommended alternative ways of reducing costs in the department at home and abroad with a view to “avoiding the negative political fallout” of embassy closures. These included expanding the use of one-diplomat offices.

The review warns that “closing missions and withdrawing the Government presence risks giving a mixed message, at home and abroad, at a time when these offices are dedicated to working to restore our reputation internationally and assist in our economic recovery”.

It adds: “Resident embassies are a symbol of the status of bilateral relations as well as the primary channel for conducting them. Any closures necessary for budgetary reasons have the potential for negative political repercussions which would need to be anticipated and managed carefully.”

The review states that staffing cuts have made it increasingly difficult to staff embassies or consular services adequately. It also says countries which Ireland regards as its peers – such as Austria, Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden – have between 99 and 120 offices. Ireland, on the other hand, has a total of 76 offices (although this has since reduced to 73, with the closure of three offices last November). These include 58 embassies, eight consulates general and two other offices.

The report states that staffing in Irish missions is considerably “leaner” than in offices for comparable countries.

It said just nine missions had more than three staff. More than half had two or fewer diplomatic officers, while seven operated with just one staff member.

“This stretches the fabric further as diplomatic and economic relations are conducted with a further 104 countries through non-resident accreditations,” it says.

The review of Ireland’s overseas missions found a number of locations where the country was under-represented and where a diplomatic presence would serve the national interest. This resulted in the opening of an embassy in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, in 2009 as well as a consulate in Atlanta in the US.