There is much agonising in Ireland at the moment over whether or not we should close our embassy in the Vatican. Last November, the Taniste (second in political command) announced the closure of the Irish embassy there.
On Saturday, however, there were whispers from Government that it wouldn’t close – or that it would close, but would be opened again in two years if economic conditions allow.
Let’s just think about embassies and their functions for a moment. Principally, they are there to offer diplomatic and consular assistance to their citizens on foreign soil. Their other principal function is to forge and maintain good economic and diplomatic links with their host countries.
Take a look at this list of Irish embassies and consulates around the world. There are plenty there that could be shut. I mean, do we really need one embassy and 14 consulates in Spain? Really?
When I lived in Jakarta in 1997, we had no embassy there. We still don’t, as it happens. At the time, the nearest Irish embassy was in Kuala Lumpur. In 2000, we opened one in Singapore. I understand the strategic importance of an embassy in Singapore – it’s a gateway to China and is very well-placed in South East Asia. But do we really need one in Kuala Lumpur as well?
While we’re busy closing schools, removing SNAs from children with special needs and increasing class sizes, does it make sense to keep so many embassies open? Remember, it’s not just the salaries of the staff you’re paying, it’s the rent of the Embassy, the Ambassador’s residence, the residences of the First and Second Secretaries, the Ambassador’s car, a ‘hardship allowance’ in some territories. Not to mention the cost of moving staff and their belongings around the globe. School fees at International schools for the offspring of ambassadors and other staff, domestic staff, security staff……do you see how quickly the euros mount up?
When I lived in countries where there was no Irish embassy, there was always an Honourary Irish Consulate. This was a person local to that country who had links to Ireland – usually they had been educated here – and who undertook to help get passports and register foreign-born children as Irish citizens.
Jakarta in 1997 wasn’t The Year of Living Dangerously, by any stretch – but there were a few hairy moments. Irish people there – and there was only a handful of us in that city of teeming millions – were advised that if we were in trouble or needed refuge, then the embassy of any EU country would help us.
If that solution was good enough then, why isn’t it good enough now? There is an Irish embassy in Rome. Let it deal with the Vatican as well – and let’s keep a few small schools open and a few more SNAs in employment.