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

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.


Vatican links
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.

Some embassy openings may be offset by closures or merging of missions elsewhere but there is little scope for any significant reduction in representation anywhere in the world and some of our more important embassies are seriously understaffed. In Washington, for example, a handful of diplomats and officials from other government departments face the challenge of representing Irish interests on a series of crucial policy issues – including corporate tax rules and immigration reform – alongside the daily business of lobbying the White House, Congress and various arms of the administration; promoting Irish economic interests and connecting with a 40 million-strong Irish-American community.

Anglo-Irish relations will remain a priority, not only because it is our most important economic relationship and on account of Northern Ireland but because of the potential impact on Irish interests of possible British constitutional changes such as Scottish independence and a British exit from the EU. A presence in all EU capitals is essential to pursue Irish interests in Europe, given that each member state can vote on issues of importance to our economic and political wellbeing. Meanwhile, many of our development partners in Africa are enjoying unprecedented economic growth, offering potential opportunities for economic co-operation.

The Irish diplomatic service has traditionally been staffed by generalists who are expected to move seamlessly from a consular post in Chicago to the bureaucracy of Brussels and on to a hardship post in sub-Saharan Africa. The service is unusual in offering no incentive to learn languages – most diplomatic services pay annual bonuses for language skills, with harder languages earning bigger payments. This approach has functioned successfully until now, not least because many of our vital missions are in countries with traditional cultural or political links with Ireland.


Language training
The rise of Asia has changed that, creating the need for a cadre of specialists with advanced language skills and a deep cultural understanding of an unfamiliar region. Difficult languages such as Chinese and Arabic typically require at least one year’s full-time study in a country as a basis for proficiency. Diplomats who undergo such language training should expect to serve a significant proportion of their careers in countries where the relevant language is important.

Finally, the Government should adopt a strategic approach to engagement with the EU’s embryonic diplomatic service, the External Action Service, which currently has no Irish head of mission anywhere. An active policy of encouraging secondments to the service is a cost-effective means of offering Irish diplomats valuable experience, especially on trade and development issues.

The Tánaiste has taken an important step in initiating a review of Irish foreign policy and in arguing successfully for an increase in the foreign representation budget. The challenge now is to persuade his Government colleagues of the economic and political merits of a better resourced, more strategically focused foreign service to represent Irish interests in an increasingly interconnected world.


Denis Staunton is Deputy Editor

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