Irish diplomats need more language skills, says foreign affairs head
Niall Burgess identifies gaps in Spanish and Chinese as missions set to increase
Niall Burgess, secretary general, at Iveagh House: “It is about putting the right people with the right skills into the right place at the right time.” Photograph: Cyril Byrne
The Department of Foreign Affairs must be “much more linguistically diverse” post-Brexit for the almost one-third increase in the number of diplomatic missions planned over the next seven years, its most senior official has said.
Speaking days after the launch of the Government’s “Global Ireland 2025” plan, Niall Burgess, the secretary general of the department, said that its increased capacity to open missions from a 2014 expansion leaves it well-placed to open new embassies and consulates at an average cost of €500,000 to €1 million.
“I have no concerns about the resourcing. It is not about putting more people in; it is about putting the right people with the right skills into the right place at the right time,” he said in an interview with The Irish Times.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Tánaiste Simon Coveney unveiled the plan to increase Ireland’s “global footprint” last week with the aim of adding another 26 missions to the 80-strong existing network of diplomatic missions focusing on expanding to the south and the east.
The department is eyeing further regional gaps with new missions in West Africa, the Gulf with possible outposts in Kuwait and Qatar, and missions in Toronto in Canada, and Melbourne and Perth in Australia.
“We are going to have to be more linguistically capable if we are going to function effectively, not just in the new markets we are entering now but across the European Union, ” he said.
The Government’s plan to deepen and widen its overseas presence comes as diplomats take Ireland’s lead in Brexit negotiations, embark on a campaign to win a seat on the UN security council for 2021-22 and aim to meet a UN target of allocating 0.7 per cent of national income to overseas development aid by 2030.
New missions were “coming in on time and under budget”, Mr Burgess said. What started as “a project” in 2014 was now “a process”, as HR and property staff have been recruited and IT resources increased to manage the expansion. The department has hired two more architects and will add to that, he said.
“We have learned a lot about how to do it and to do it properly,” he said. “That is what a well-functioning foreign ministry does. We are not taking people away from the critical policy work.”
Mr Burgess says he is “taking a fundamental look at our HQ structures” at Iveagh House in Dublin, including new North America and Latin America desks and a Asia-Pacific desk to support the expansion.
On the spread and size of missions, Ireland lags the Scandinavian countries, which are used as benchmarks. Mr Burgess says there are 13 Irish missions in the Asia-Pacific region to Denmark’s 20.
A majority of Irish missions are staffed on average by just two or three diplomats. One in eight of the existing missions have just one diplomat, he says.
“The size of our missions is smaller and the spread is more limited. We are beginning to catch up now. The ‘Global Ireland’ initiative is about increasing our footprint where there are very obvious gaps,” he said.
Facing a post-Brexit world, all the major European embassies are receiving additional resources. Burgess says that Ireland is the only small or medium-sized member state with an embassy in every EU capital.
“That is an enormous asset to us now,” he said.
The expansion comes at a time when recruits brought into the department with Ireland’s entry into the EEC in 1973 are retiring, leaving gaps in experience that Mr Burgess is trying to fill with heavy recruitment.
He sees Korean interest in the Northern Irish peace process and a possible increased role for Irish diplomats in the peninsula following last week’s rapprochement between the US and North Korea.
Ireland is seeking a more influential role in the European Union post-Brexit and in the United Nations at a time when the likes of US are retreating into isolationism and protectionism.