As you are aware, the Government recently found it necessary to close three of Ireland’s overseas Missions. I appreciate the opportunity to brief the Committee on the rationale for this decision which was taken with the greatest regret and reluctance.
The closures have to be seen in the context of the need to maximise the return from the diminishing resources available to my Department to operate the Diplomatic and Consular network.
The network now consists of 73 missions overseas – 56 Embassies, 7 multilateral missions and 10 Consulates General and other offices. This is modest compared with the external representation of countries of similar size and international interests. States which we regard as our peers have networks in the range of 97-120 offices.
Moreover, the staffing of our individual Missions is much leaner. Ireland has approximately 340 diplomats serving abroad (including officers from Government Departments other than Foreign Affairs and Trade) whereas Finland has 800; Netherlands 1,500 and Norway 630. Well over half of the Irish Missions have two or fewer diplomats; seven operate with only one and only nine have more than three.
The cost-effectiveness of our external representation is further enhanced by the use of non-resident accreditations to conduct diplomatic and economic relations with more than a hundred other countries, supported by a network of 92 Honorary Consuls to help serve citizen and business needs in locations where we are not in a position to maintain career offices.
In summary, our global interests are serviced with significantly fewer offices and staff than our comparators on the international stage.
The network fulfils the full range of functions performed by all diplomatic services.
Our Missions abroad are involved in representing and advancing government policies with other States and in international organisations, in particular the EU and the UN; economic and cultural promotion; frontline consular and passport services to Irish citizens overseas; engaging with Irish communities and harnessing the resource they offer in assisting economic recovery; and managing programmes, particularly in Irish Aid priority countries.
The promotion of Ireland’s economic and trading interests overseas has always been a key focus of my Department, in cooperation with other relevant Government Departments and State Agencies. Export-led growth is fundamental to our plans for economic recovery. My Department’s enhanced role in trade promotion recognises the importance of its contribution and that of the Embassy network in delivering on the Government’s trade strategy. Embassies can, by virtue of their status in international relations, access the highest levels of Government, media and business in host countries, thus providing platforms to promote Ireland and Irish companies.
My Department is responding to the challenge of reprioritising and re-evaluating how we use our increasingly constrained resources. Our deployment abroad must be even more focused and productive than before.
While recognising the vital role that the diplomatic network plays, it was simply not possible to exempt it from the economies my Department has had to make.
I am sure that I do not need to remind members of the colossal pressures on public spending. Since 2008, all branches of government have taken considerable and repeated reductions in their allocations.
My Department has not been spared in this. The estimate for 2012 is €725 million, compared with over €1billion in 2008, representing a drop of 29%.
We have restructured a number of our development cooperation programmes and projects by straightforward reductions in support but also by extending agreed levels of assistance over a longer period.
We have hollowed out administrative savings to the extent possible by maximising value for money, through staff reductions, cuts in travel budgets, some disposals of properties and by deferring investments in basic infrastructure. All areas of expenditure have been critically examined in the search for economies. Last year, a number of Missions were reduced to one diplomatic officer, itself an indicator of the budgetary strain to which the system was becoming increasingly subject.
Until now, however, my Department has managed to absorb the reductions required while maintaining the geographic extent of our resident representation overseas. This was no longer sustainable.
The choice of Missions for closure was taken only after a comprehensive review of the network in which particular weight was given to the economic return from Missions and their role in rebuilding Ireland’s reputation abroad.
I was very conscious of the need to identify those locations where I felt that the State’s interests could still be adequately represented through non-resident accreditations.
As regards the Holy See, I want to make clear that we have not broken off diplomatic relations. On the contrary, the Government has nominated a senior Dublin-based official in my Department as our Ambassador to the Holy See and is currently awaiting the agreement of the Vatican to this nomination.
For our part, the Government acted quickly to agree to the nomination of Monsignor Charles J. Brown as Apostolic Nuncio to Ireland. I understand that Monsignor Brown will be consecrated Archbishop in the New Year and will seek to present his credentials to President Higgins sometime thereafter. I would like to congratulate Monsignor Brown on his appointment and to assure him that I and the other members of the Government look forward to working with him both in his position as Nuncio and as Dean of the Diplomatic Corps.
I look forward to a continued dialogue with the Holy See on issues of mutual interest, including global issues such as development, human rights and disarmament, and issues with a particular Irish dimension, such as the need to deal resolutely with the scourge of child sexual abuse, an issue on which Ireland and the Holy See have recently pledged to cooperate.
While on the subject of our relations to the Holy See, I would wish to remove any misunderstanding on whether the Government is willing to invite Pope Benedict to visit Ireland.
The first thing to say is that, according to normal diplomatic practice, invitations to Heads of State to visit another country are neither sought nor issued in public. Rather, a formal invitation is issued only after notification that the Head of State wishes to visit and dates have been agreed.
However, in order to remove any misunderstandings, I would like to make clear that, should the Government be informed by the Holy See that Pope Benedict wishes to visit Ireland at a time of mutual convenience, for instance on the occasion of next year’s Eucharistic Congress, I have no doubt that the Government will respond positively and that an invitation will be forthcoming.
Trade with Iran has not grown in line with expectations over the years and our assessment is that there is little prospect of an improvement in the foreseeable future.
Notwithstanding our serious differences on issues such as human rights and the nuclear issue, Ireland has always emphasised the importance of dialogue and will continue to maintain communication with the Iranian authorities on a range of issues despite the closure of our Embassy.
Indeed, it remains our firm conviction that ultimately the issues relating to Iran’s nuclear programme can only be resolved through diplomacy and negotiations — and not by any other means.
Ireland opened its representative office in Dili at a time of great change and transition in that country. Our presence on the ground was a symbol of solidarity with the new nation. Over the past decade, we have worked to improve the lives of the people of Timor Leste and assist in building the capacity of the new state. Enormous and positive change has happened during this time.
The decision to close our Mission in Dili does not mean that we attach any less importance to our bilateral relationship with Timor Leste. However, we now believe that there is not the same need for a direct presence on the ground. Our Ambassador to Singapore will continue to be accredited as non-resident Ambassador to Timor Leste.
In summary, Ireland will continue its active engagement with the Holy See, Iran and Timor Leste. The Government believes that our interests with each of these states can be sufficiently dealt with through accreditations of Ambassadors on a non-resident basis.
Our diplomatic representation needs to be flexible and responsive to changing circumstances. The Government will keep the scale and deployment of the network under review to ensure that it is deployed to best advantage.