The Irish Times view on Ireland’s diplomatic network: A rapid, risky expansion

In its headlong rush to find new markets, the State could end up with a diplomatic network that is heavier on symbolism than substance

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Tánaiste Simon Coveney this week announced plans for seven new Irish diplomatic missions overseas. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Tánaiste Simon Coveney this week announced plans for seven new Irish diplomatic missions overseas. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

 

Government plans to open seven new embassies and consulates around the world suggest a welcome and overdue willingness to invest in Ireland’s global relationships. But there is a danger that in its headlong, Brexit-inspired rush to expand the State’s presence, the Department of Foreign Affairs will spead itself too thin and end up with a network that is heavier on symbolism than substance.

The Government announced this week that it would open embassies in Ukraine, Morocco, the Philppines and Liberia in the coming years and consulates in Cardiff, Frankfurt and Los Angeles from next year. This follows last October’s announcement of new embassies in New Zealand, Colombia, Chile and Jordan and new consulates in Vancouver and Mumbai.

With 80 diplomatic missions, Ireland’s network is small by European standards, and while gaps will remain after the planned additions – notably in west Africa and the Middle East – the expansion will put right some glaring omissions.

But opening an office is only part of the challenge. About 10 of the 80 existing missions are staffed by a single diplomat, which severely limits their effectiveness. If that’s the model for the new offices, their impact will be modest.

There is also a danger that the department is expanding too fast without sufficient investment in its head office, which must manage, staff and coordinate the network. And there’s no getting away from the fact that Ireland still does far too little to build relationships and trade with the major countries on its doorstep, notably France and Germany, where, notwithstanding the good work of embassies and agencies, engagement at the highest level too often smacks of tokenism.

The Department of Foreign Affairs is extraordinarily busy these days. It is the lead department on Brexit and is campaigning for a seat on the UN security council. Now it plans to dramatically expand its network almost overnight. The Government markets this as an expansion in Ireland’s “global footprint”. A footprint, of course, is no more than a shallow, fleeting imprint in the soil.

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