Irish foreign policy review must reflect changed circumstances in the world
Opinion: Government should revisit decision to close mission to the Holy See
Shanghai skyline: diplomats who have had intensive language training might expect to spend a significant part of their careers in a region where that language is important. Photograph: Bloomberg
The mood around Iveagh House, the splendid St Stephen’s Green headquarters of the Department of Foreign Affairs, is unusually buoyant these days, not least because many of the diplomats inside are confident they will be getting out of there before long. Like other Government departments, Foreign Affairs saw its overall budget reduced last month but within the small print was revealed a modest, 7 per cent increase in the allocation for “foreign representation and accommodation expenses”. This has fuelled speculation the Government is preparing to announce the opening of a number of new embassies and consulates around the world. Meanwhile, the department is in the process of recruiting 20 third secretaries, the first intake of young diplomats for five years.
All this good news comes as Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs Eamon Gilmore has initiated a “complete review” of the State’s foreign policy and external relations, the first such exercise since that carried out by Dick Spring in 1996. Speaking at a human rights forum in Dublin this week, Gilmore said the review would seek to “ensure that we produce the right mix of policies and instruments with which to engage as a responsible global actor and to protect the values and interests of our people”. The Tánaiste mentioned some of the new challenges facing international diplomacy, including climate change and the wave of protests and upheavals across the Arab world. But the political, economic and technological changes of the last two decades have been so dramatic and far-reaching that Irish diplomacy needs to rethink not just where it operates but how it works.
The new missions rumoured to be under consideration reflect the shifting map of Ireland’s interests abroad, with three possible openings in Asia – embassies in Indonesia and Thailand, and a consulate in Hong Kong. A new embassy in Nairobi would, if approved, serve as a hub for Irish Aid’s activities in east Africa. Embassies in Colombia and Chile would almost double Ireland’s representation in South America and a consulate in Austin, Texas, would help to boost links with an economically important region of the United States. A new embassy in Croatia would provide an Irish presence in the European Union’s newest member state, and a consulate in Istanbul would reflect the rise in Turkey’s regional influence.
Any expansion of the embassy network is likely to raise the question of reopening Ireland’s mission to the Holy See, which was closed two years ago in the wake of the Cloyne Report into the sexual abuse of children by priests. Officially, the embassy was closed for economic reasons but the move was universally perceived as an expression of the Government’s disapproval of the Vatican’s handling of the abuse scandals. Either way, it was unwise to close an embassy that provided access to the Vatican’s unique global diplomatic network as well as providing important insights into the workings of an institution that remains a powerful influence within Irish society. The embassy could be reopened at a relatively low cost and the Government should do so, despite an understandable reluctance to reverse a controversial decision so soon.