There should be open competitions for ambassador roles, FF Senator says

Recruits often ‘come through Department of Foreign Affairs ranks’, says Malcolm Byrne

It is time to reform how Irish ambassadors are appointed, a Fianna Fáil Senator has said.

Senator Malcolm Byrne said there should be open competitions for the positions of ambassadors in order to ensure there is greater diversity within the public service and that it is “no longer a closed shop”.

Speaking in the Seanad on Tuesday, Mr Byrne said the recruitment of ambassadors essentially “comes through the Department of Foreign Affairs ranks”.

“It is very rare, and it is normally somebody from another department, such as our new ambassador to London, it is very rare that somebody who hasn’t worked up through the ranks in [the Department] of Foreign Affairs and has been long standing in foreign affairs, ever gets appointed,” he said.

“In the old trade union days, that would have been referred to very much as a closed shop.”

Mr Byrne said he was not arguing that it should be a decision for the Minister to “name whoever he or she may want”.

“I do believe it should be an open competition. This was introduced for a number of posts in the UK. It also happens in other jurisdictions. The individual has to show that he or she is competent and can carry out the functions of representing his or her country as an ambassador but I don’t accept the argument that only people from the Department of Foreign Affairs are capable of being the representative of our country abroad,” he said.

“I am not suggesting in any way that they should be political appointments as we see in the US, where about half of its ambassadors are appointed by the US president.”

Represent Ireland

Mr Byrne added there were a lot of people "who in many ways already represent Ireland very effectively in the arts and other areas" who may have the requisite skills to be able to represent Ireland.

“I also think it would be very good for the Department of Foreign Affairs to broaden the pool to ensure there is diversity within the department at ambassadorial rank, that it is infused with different ideas and views at a senior level,” he said.

Minister of State Mary Butler said all currently serving ambassadors are "established career civil servants" employed by the Department of Foreign Affairs and recruited through the Public Appointments Service or competitions administered by the department in accordance with the code of practice for appointment to positions in the civil and public service.

Open recruitment competitions are held to join the diplomatic service at third secretary, first secretary and counsellor level, she said.

Sarah Burns

Sarah Burns

Sarah Burns is a reporter for The Irish Times