Joint Committee Meeting Foreign Affairs/Trade

December 20th, 2011 - Pat Breen

This is our second committee meeting this week. We had a meeting yesterday on the OSCE and members were anxious to have a meeting to discuss the closure of three Irish embassies abroad. I am pleased to welcome the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Gilmore, to the committee this afternoon to discuss the recent announcement that Ireland is to close its embassies in Iran, Timor-Leste and the Holy See. The Minister is accompanied by officials from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade: Mr. David Cooney, Secretary General, Ms Angela O’Farrell, Mr. Barrie Robinson, Ms Dearbhla Doyle, and of course Mr. Liam MacGabhann, with whom I had the pleasure of spending a week, along with some other members of the committee, in Ethiopia recently. I thank Mr. MacGabhann sincerely for the time he spent with us and for his co-operation on the visit. That he is a former ambassador to Malawi made the visit very successful and I thank him for that.
It is appropriate to welcome three new ambassadors who presented their credentials to President Higgins last week, namely, the new ambassador of Italy, Maurizio Zanini; the ambassador of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, Mr. Alphonse Berns; and the ambassador of the Republic of Kosovo, Mr. Muhamet Hamiti. We, as a committee, look forward to meeting the three new ambassadors in the very near future. We had a great relationship with the former ambassador of Italy who has now returned to Rome. We will meet the new ambassadors in the very near future.
It is late and I thank the Tánaiste for attending today’s meeting, the purpose of which is to discuss the Government’s decision to close the embassies in the Holy See and Iran and the mission in Timor Leste. We all recognise that the decision to close the missions was taken in the context of financial restraints facing all Departments. Members of the joint committee have concerns about the closure of the missions and we believe it is an appropriate time to discuss these with the Tánaiste.
Ireland is often referred to as a small country with a big footprint internationally. Each mission closure potentially will have a discernible impact on our international standing, but the decision of most note is the one to close the Embassy to the Holy See and losing direct access to what may regarded as the foremost listening post to the world. Also, the Vatican is a place of particular renaissance for historical and religious reasons for many Irish people.
The decision to close the embassy in Iran has been made at a time when Iran’s relationship with Europe is increasingly strained. It seems somewhat counter-intuitive to decide to weaken our bilateral relationship. If we believe in the power of diplomacy, we must believe that we must be there on the grounds of keeping dialogue open in these difficult times having regard to the tense situation that exists there.
The closure of the mission in Timor Leste fits with the substantial cuts to Ireland Aid’s budget announced in the budget. Putting aside the strong ethical arguments which can be made to protect the aid budget, it is also the case that our aid programme is one of the most respected in the world and it is essential as part of our international reputation.
This is just to articulate some of the concerns voiced since the time the decision on these closures was taken. I am aware that members also have other concerns. I have been contacted by a number of NGOs regarding the human rights situation in Timor Leste which have requested that we would continue to monitor the situation there. I have concerns about Iran in that regard as well. Several Iranian delegations to Ireland have visited Irish universities in particular during the past six months and Iran is planning to send more PhD scholarship students to Irish universities. I understand people there are working to send an Iranian veterinary delegation here in the near future to prepare the ground for the re-establishment of the beef and meat trade between the two countries. These are areas of concern.
I invite the Tánaiste to address the committee following which we will have a question and answer session.

Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade (Deputy Eamon Gilmore): I thank the Chairman for his invitation to attend the committee and to exchange thoughts on these issues with the members of the committee.
As the Chairman is 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, which is made up of 56 embassies, seven multilateral missions and ten 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 to 120 offices.
Moreover, the staffing of our individual missions is much leaner. Ireland has approximately 340 diplomats serving abroad, including officers from Departments other than the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, whereas Finland has 800, the Netherlands has 1,500 and Norway has 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 100 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; front line 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 co-operation with other relevant 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 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 €1 billion in 2008, representing a drop of 29%. We have restructured a number of our development co-operation 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 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, disarmament and human rights, 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 co-operate. That is an issue on which Ireland and the Holy See have recently pledged to co-operate.
While on the subject of our relations with the Holy See, I wish to remove any misunderstanding about whether the Government is willing to invite Pope Benedict XVI to visit Ireland. 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, to remove any misunderstandings, I wish to make it clear that should the Government be informed by the Holy See that Pope Benedict XVI wishes to visit Ireland at a time of mutual convenience, for example, at the occasion of next year’s Eucharistic Congress, I have no doubt the Government will respond positively and that an invitation would 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 a significant improvement in the foreseeable future. Notwithstanding our serious differences on issues such as human rights and nuclear development, 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. It remains our firm conviction that, ultimately, the issues relating to Iran’s nuclear programme can be resolved only through diplomacy and negotiations rather than through other means.
Ireland opened its representative office in Dili at a time of great change and transition in Timor-Leste. Our presence on the ground was a symbol of solidarity with the new nation and over the past decade we have worked to improve the lives of the people of Timor-Leste and assisted in building the capacity of the new state. Enormous and positive change has occurred during this time. The decision to close our mission in Dili does not mean we attach any less importance to our bilateral relationship with Timor-Leste but we now believe there is not the same need for a presence on the ground. Our ambassador to Singapore will continue to be accredited as non-resident ambassador to Timor-Leste.
Ireland will continue its active engagement with the Holy See, Iran and Timor-Leste. The Government believes our interest with each of these States can be sufficiently dealt with through accreditations of ambassadors on a non-resident basis. Our diplomatic representation must be flexible and responsive to changing circumstances. The Government will keep the scale and deployment of the network under review to ensure it is deployed to best advantage.
Chairman: I thank the Tánaiste for his stark and comprehensive report to the committee. It is good to hear his reassurances on the missions abroad, as they play an extremely important role not only in diplomatic terms but in trade, as he mentioned. I hope Vatican Radio will see the transcripts of this meeting this evening and perhaps there will be interest from the Vatican in scheduling a visit here by the Pontiff for the Eucharistic conference next year. I am glad to hear the reassurances and the positive Government response, as the visits this year by the British Queen and President Obama were very positive for the country. I am sure the same could be said for a visit by the Pontiff, particularly in that special year. Our ambassador in waiting is present and I am sure he will respond on the issue.

Deputy Seán Ó Fearghaíl: The Tánaiste is very welcome. We had an exchange in the House on Question Time some weeks ago on these matters but it is useful to again have an opportunity to engage on the matters before us. I agree very strongly with the emphasis the Tánaiste places on export growth and how that will lead us to economic recovery. In saying that we must bear in mind that the Tánaiste’s immediate predecessor brought to the fore the role which the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade can have in trade promotion. The Tánaiste, in assuming the role of Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, has further emphasised the importance of that role for our diplomatic corps.
The Chairman and other members had the recent opportunity to visit Addis Ababa, where we saw at first hand over a week the outstanding work being done by our ambassador and her team. That work is reflected in other embassies throughout the world. I learned on that trip that we have in our diplomatic corps a group of people of which we can be enormously proud. They have significant ability and enormous commitment to the welfare of this country, and engaging their talents in trade promotion has been an inspired initiative. I hold the view - I hope the Tánaiste would not disagree - that we need more embassies with more people of the calibre of those we currently have in place networking for us across the world, promoting Irish products and Ireland as a destination for tourists while helping us build our economy. Against this background I would argue that the Tánaiste’s actions have been a mistake.
I will briefly deal with the three embassies in question. The Tánaiste will realise that quite a number of people were hurt by the Government’s decision to close the Vatican embassy. Those people were not only people who are strongly professed and practising Catholics but rather people who recognised the very positive influence of the Vatican on the world stage. As the Tánaiste has noted on more than one occasion, it is important as what is probably the world’s leading listening post. We know the Secretary General of the Department, Mr. David Cooney, will be appointed but when will he be accredited? Given the burden of responsibility that falls on any Secretary General, what mechanisms will be used to maintain strong links with the Holy See, particularly with regard to attendance at meetings and engagements? How often is it envisaged that the Secretary General would be able to travel to the Vatican?
I read that we have approximately €85 million of trade per annum with Iran. The Tánaiste indicated prospects are not good for development of that sector and mentioned that what has happened to date is disappointing. If it has not been good when we had a presence on the ground, the prospects of our position improving will not be enhanced by withdrawing from that post. It is also vital that we recognise the importance of Iran as the dominant Shi’ite country in the region. At a time when there is political instability in the region, is it good for Ireland to be absent? Ireland is generally well respected as a neutral State. Did the Department review trade links with Iran before making the decision and was there consultation with EU partners on their diplomatic efforts with Iran and the Middle East Quartet on the repercussions of closing our embassy or any role Ireland could play in dealing with Iran as a non-colonial nation? Did the Tánaiste consult the EU external action services about playing a greater role in representing Ireland in Iran?
Ireland can be proud of the role it has played in Timor-Leste. As I understand it, the role is ongoing, and it was the first major initiative of our conflict resolution team. Will the closure of the embassy affect the ongoing work of Irish Aid in the region? Does the closure of an embassy so closely associated with humanitarian work and conflict resolution indicate a downgrading of the importance of such issues in Irish foreign policy under this Government?

Chairman: I remind members that the Tánaiste must leave at 6 p.m. and there may be a vote in the Dáil at approximately 5.55 p.m. Some seven or eight members are seeking to contribute so I ask them to confine their comments to questions rather than statements, which would speed up the process and allow us to get more answers from the Tánaiste. Is there agreement on that? Deputy Ó Feargháil got away with it.

Deputy Pádraig Mac Lochlainn: I will do my best and focus on Iran and East Timor. I will begin with East Timor. I recall watching, as I am sure will the Tánaiste, a disturbing documentary by John Pilger many years ago before East Timor voted for its independence and what the people had to endure under the Indonesian regime was harrowing in terms of the numbers who were slaughtered and the genocide that took place. It was uplifting, therefore, when the people voted for their independence in 1999 after 500 years of colonialism.
Ireland, as a non-colonial country, has played a key role in East Timor in the past. There is much work to be done, however, to bed down the potential of independence in terms of truth and reconciliation. There are many answers to be given to the victims, and that process must be enshrined in law. The question of land is a major issue, and in a country that had been colonised for such a long time there would be huge sensitivities around that, but significant issues arise in terms of lands being taken from people and given over to development, which is not unique to East Timor. We see that happen repeatedly in developing countries across the world. Also, in terms of East Timor’s economic statistics, food distribution should be better. There is a range of issues on which we can play a role in helping the people to develop that potential and I seek reassurance on how we will continue to engage with the Government in East Timor and assist it in that transition process.
In terms of Iran, my questions are similar to those put by Deputy Ó Fearghaíl. The Tánaiste is aware of the reality of what we have seen recently in Iran in terms of the issue of nuclear proliferation and the concerns of the international community about its intent in that regard. However, with the intervention of honest brokers I have a sense that we could broker a relationship that would be very helpful in that region. Israel is destabilised by the Arab spring and the increasing assertiveness of the Palestinian Authority, the PLO, in asserting its nationhood and rights but it is an opportunity rather than a threat for the Israeli people, and with our outstanding record internationally and our reputation for human rights advancement, Ireland is well placed to act as an honest broker. In both cases, therefore, I would be concerned that in removing the embassies we may lose that potential and I seek reassurance on that.

Senator David Norris: I welcome the Tánaiste. I note there is substantial reference to economic interests, export led growth and so on in his speech. That is a significant factor because there is virtually no reference to human rights. I remind the Tánaiste that it was his predecessor, Dick Spring, who produced a series of papers that led to the development of a human rights section within the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. I am glad Deputy MacLochlainn referred to the human rights issue because I would hate to think that would be overwhelmed by our admittedly very real economic position.
With regard to the closure of the Vatican embassy, it is important that any suggestion that the two other embassies were closed as a cover for making some kind of an attack upon the Vatican is countered, and the Tánaiste has started that process in his statement. My view is that it is not motivated by any antipathy to the Vatican. It is reasonable to be critical of the Vatican as a state, as one has the right to be critical of any state that has a head of state and a foreign policy which is executed through international organisations such as the United Nations. There are times when I believe the influence of the Vatican at those organisations can be malign in terms of human rights interests. That is my point of view but they are represented there and it is important that we have contact with them.
I note we have appointed an ambassador in residence in Dublin. I assume that some of the complications of the Lateran Treaty prevent us appointing the ambassador who is resident in Rome. The principal reason for closing the Vatican embassy is not due to any antipathy to the Vatican or to Catholicism, which I would not share, but simply because there is duplication in that there are two embassies within half a mile of each other virtually in the same city. That seems to be a logical reason, and I would hope the function of diplomatic relations would not be impeded by the move the Government has made.
What is the fate of the building? I understand the embassy in the Vatican is a valuable and historic building. What is it proposed to do with that? Is it proposed to realise that asset? It seems odd that we would close an embassy yet the reciprocal ambassador remains the dean of the diplomatic corps. I am not sure, and perhaps the Tánaiste can inform me, if the Papal Nuncio is automatically the dean of the diplomatic corps in every country. I raise that as a question.
With regard to Iran, reference was made to the economic position. I would be much more concerned about the human rights situation. There has been significant brutalisation of women, minorities and gay people in Iran. A horrible example is where two young men were arrested because they were having a relationship. They were held for several months, mistreated by the police and then hanged from the back of a lorry. I received photographs of that from a married couple in County Cork who had no specific axe to grind except human rights. It was horrifying to see the photographs of those two young people and I hope we would retain the opportunity to protest against that. It is very significant.
The Tánaiste explained that our relationship with regard to Timor-Leste would be through the ambassador in Singapore but I do not believe he stated the arrangements that would be made with regard to Iran. If he did, I am afraid I did not take it in.
With regard to Timor-Leste, I am sure the Tánaiste has been made aware of the views of Trócaire, and there are significant questions that must be asked of the Government. I would be sympathetic to the Government. The Tánaiste will remember the connection this country had with Timor-Leste, which was led by an ordinary Irish citizen, Tom Hyland. His role should never be forgotten because it was he who drove the situation as a result of seeing the film by John Pilger referred to earlier. We have played a remarkable role in Timor-Leste but there are concerns about the way State land is managed. I am not sure what it is called but something like a truth and reconciliation commission has been promised but the legislation has been delayed consistently. The presidential pardon has been given without any reasons offered for that. There is also the question of adequate food supply. There are critical elements there and our direct involvement, and it was unusual for a small country like Ireland to take the lead internationally as we did with regard to East Timor, was a result of the activity of a citizen of this country who approached myself, other Members and this committee and who spoke to the Department of Foreign Affairs, which transformed the diplomatic response of the European Union towards East Timor.
In a descending scale I would be less concerned about the Vatican, not because of any antipathy towards Catholicism but because the question of duplication arises. That is justifiable on economic grounds. I am interested to know what will happen to the embassy. With regard to Iran I am concerned about human rights. I hope that can be dealt with by whoever takes on that responsibility. The one I believe is most urgent that it be retained, if at all possible, is the one where we can do the most good, that is, in East Timor. Is there any possibility that could be retained?

Senator Michael Mullins: I welcome the Tánaiste, his officials and all the visiting diplomats. I take the opportunity to salute our overseas missions. I, too, am disappointed that we had to close embassies and missions. However, given our economic circumstances, it was inevitable that the Tánaiste would have to achieve savings.
I received many representations on the closure of the embassy to the Holy See. There was great disappointment about the closure among Catholics in the State. Surprisingly, I received a couple of telephone calls from Irish Americans who were very disappointed we had to close the embassy. Are the closures of all three embassies permanent? I understand we own the Villa Spada in Rome. Given that everybody is trying to think outside the box, would it not be possible for the two embassies to share the building? I am not aware of how large it is. If we wanted to make savings, could we not have convinced the embassies to share resources and the building?

Senator David Norris: And ambassadors.

Senator Michael Mullins: Possibly. Could we maintain a presence but at a cost acceptable to the Department?

Chairman: I ask members to keep their questions short in order that we will receive more answers from the Tánaiste.

Senator Mark Daly: I, too, have concerns about the closure of the embassies. The issue of human rights in Iran was raised by my colleague, Deputy Mac Lochlainn, as was our ability to act as an honest broker in respect of the ongoing and very disturbing escalation of the nuclear problem in the Middle East and the consequent trade sanctions rightly imposed on the Iranians. This matter requires a diplomatic solution because the alternative is hard to contemplate.
Since the far-away country of East Timor, in which we played such a lead role, is one of our partner countries in the provision of aid, it is disappointing that it is losing an embassy.
I have received representations on our embassy to the Holy See and know the reasons given for its closure. While we are experiencing difficult times financially, I understand Haiti which has suffered far more than Ireland as a result of an earthquake has a diplomatic mission to the Holy See. Given this, I have been asked why Ireland no longer has any, in spite of its having had a representative in the country since 1929. Haiti has managed to retain its ambassador.
I have serious difficulties with the Vatican’s handling of the child abuse issue in Ireland. Its handling of it was nothing short of a disgrace and the Vatican needs to be held to account. The Taoiseach’s speech which was applauded by many contained a number of points. However, its occurring so soon after the withdrawal of the ambassador to the Holy See was such that those prone to conspiracy theories might have believed the two events were related. If we were to withdraw our ambassador over the lack of engagement on the issue of child abuse, I would say it was fair enough but doing so for economic reasons, given that Haiti can manage to retain an embassy to the Holy See, does not seem to add up.
If we had an ambassador to the Holy See, Irish citizens who suffered so grievously at the hands of the Catholic Church through its continual cover-up might gain some satisfaction. They might not get much, but I hope they would get some. It is only by having someone engage with the Vatican constantly and daily that we might receive answers to the questions many Members have been seeking from the church in Ireland and the Vatican. Needless to say, the man in charge in the Vatican has been in charge of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith which had many files and letters sent in its direction that did not receive all of the attention they should have received. Ireland should engage with it constantly. That is why I would like to see the embassy to the Holy See retained.

Deputy Eric Byrne: I have no doubt that what the Tánaiste told us is true because it was stated to us previously that, on economic grounds, three embassies would have to be closed. When one looks at the statistics and the state of the economy, it is as clear as a bell that, with a 29% budgetary cut, something must give.
The Chairman has stated this is a nation known to box above its weight. This is very true and we are very influential as a small nation. It is a tragedy that any embassy must be closed. With regard to our developing roles, not just in trade but also in human rights and conflict resolution, the three most important peace-building nations in the world - Finland, the Netherlands and Norway - have embassy staffs of a size that puts ours in context; we just cannot compete. It is important to reassure Catholics in Ireland that we are always willing and happy to receive a visit from a Pope. The Vatican is a state. I keep hearing about our relationship with the Holy See, but I am not quite sure what the Holy See is. We have an embassy in Rome. From newspaper reports, I understand the very fine embassy that serviced the Vatican is to be the home of the Italian ambassador. Reports suggest he was using rented accommodation that was very expensive.
I reassure those Catholics worried about secularisation that we have a phenomenally close, healthy and bonding relationship with them through the section of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade responsible for Irish Aid. Throughout the world we co-operate and work productively. Rather than see embassies close, I would like to see more being opened, but the stark reality of the economic crisis is such that they must close.

Deputy Maureen O’Sullivan: I wish the Tánaiste well in his chairmanship of the OSCE which presents a great opportunity for Ireland to work to its strengths. Our economic reputation may be in tatters but we shine in our reputation in the provision of humanitarian aid, dealing with human rights issues and for our democratic values.
I am concerned that the trade aspect of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade will dominate. The proceedings of the previous joint committee were very much taken up by human rights issues. There seems to be a move now towards the economic aspects.
I am concerned about the situation in Iran, in particular. We met the Iranian ambassador several times. We have a “relationship” with him and been able to discuss human rights issues. He listens to our points and takes them on board. That is a start, but what is occurring may be a retrograde step.
With regard to budgeted expenses for embassies, in the briefing reference was made to travel. Could the expenses of embassies have been reduced? Is the Tánaiste considering closing more embassies?
Senator Jim Walsh: I welcome the Tánaiste. I am hoping to get him to debate this issue in the Seanad where we will have more time to tease out the relevant issues involved.
While a number of questions arise, I recognise at the outset the fiscal difficulties with which the Government is faced. The Tánaiste’s statement did not indicate how much time the Vatican was given between being informed and the public announcement. How much time was given? I believe it was a matter of hours, which in itself was a discourtesy but perhaps the Tánaiste will correct me in this regard. My second question pertains to a point raised by Senator Norris. The notes provided to members state the practice of the papal nuncio also acting as the dean of the diplomatic corps in Dublin is set to continue. Can the Tánaiste confirm on the record to members that he intends to so do as again, this was not included in his statement? While I do not seek to score points on this issue with the Tánaiste, in a response to a parliamentary question last July from Deputy Kevin Humphreys, who had queried the worth of the embassy in the Vatican, he made the point it was there:
to maintain ongoing relations with a significant global political entity which has diplomatic relations with 179 states, … one of the largest diplomatic corps in the world. … [T]he Vatican [is] an important listening post and crossroads on a range of global, social, political and international issues of interest to Ireland, including human rights, development, disarmament and conflict resolution.
Does the Tánaiste now resile from that statement?
I refer to a point raised by Senator Mullins on balancing the fiscal issues with the reputational costs. I also have been contacted by people from the United States and from Ireland in this regard and I believe a letter from a number of constituents that I sent to the Taoiseach has been forwarded to the Tánaiste. Interestingly, the former British ambassador to the Vatican, Francis Campbell, who the Tánaiste is aware is from Northern Ireland, stated with regard to Britain:
It is a diplomatic relationship which illustrates very clearly the global dimension of religion and it avoids narrow frameworks which too easily associate religion and violence. Today the diplomatic relationship between the UK and the Holy See speaks powerfully to the positive contribution—–
Chairman: I must interrupt Senator Walsh, as a vote has been called in the Dáil.
Senator Jim Walsh: Can the meeting resume afterwards, as I have a number of other questions on the cost and on Russia and other countries?
Chairman: Is the Tánaiste in a position to return and how much time is available to him?
Deputy Eamon Gilmore: I am prepared to return. I have a meeting scheduled at 6.30 p.m. but will try—–
Chairman: We will try to get through the questions before the suspension to enable the Tánaiste to go straight into responses on our return. Is Senator Walsh nearly finished?
Senator Jim Walsh: No, I have a number of other questions.
Chairman: He should ask them as quickly as possible before the meeting is interrupted.
Senator Jim Walsh: There has been an emphasis on savings in the reason for the decision advanced to members. I understand the saving is approximately €456,000, which is 1% of 1%, or one thousandth, of the €3.8 billion in savings that were required in this year’s budget. This appears to be minuscule in the context of what is being lost on the other side. How does the Tánaiste reconcile this decision with the position adopted by countries such as Britain, Russia or Australia which are increasing their representation to the Vatican?
I note the presence of Mr. David Cooney, Secretary General of the Department, at this meeting today. I understand from Internet news reports that ten to 12 residential ambassadors are presenting their credentials to the Vatican today. Consequently, I understand there will not be another opportunity for Mr. Cooney to present his non-residential credentials to the Vatican until next summer, which is a matter of concern to me. In addition, I also ask—–
Chairman: Sorry Senator, but a lot of questions have been asked.
Senator Jim Walsh: While there are many questions, in fairness to me, I have raised this issue many times at this joint committee and in the Seanad and I have been seeking an opportunity in this regard. I also have spoken to the Chairman privately a couple of times and I ask to be allowed to continue. Obviously, I approach the issue on the basis that this is a bad decision which disengages and diminishes Ireland’s contact with the Vatican. China has used Ireland as an example of how the church should be dealt with and I note the differences that exist in China between Catholics and Christians and their Government. In this context, the Tánaiste should comment on the anti-Christian approach of other countries and how the decision might spill over into that. I understand from the Tánaiste’s ministerial predecessors that the Vatican embassy was not on any list for closure presented to them by the Department. Was this decision taken at political level rather than coming to the Tánaiste as a recommendation from officialdom?
As my penultimate point—–
Chairman: The Senator must confine himself to a single point, as I must suspend the meeting soon.
Senator Jim Walsh: There are five other countries in which we have two, three and four ambassadors present. Consequently, I believe Senator Norris’s argument based on the presence of our embassy to Italy does not hold water. Even in circumstances in which the Tánaiste cannot rescind his decision, will he not at least consider having a cultural centre there? This would comprise a link house for dialogue that would keep the presence alive, would retain communication on issues of mutual concern and in which people from Ireland could at least engage with, and have access to, the Vatican. I note the former President is studying there at present.
Chairman: I must suspend the meeting because four minutes have expired and Deputies must vote in the Dáil. I will allow the Senator to revert briefly on our return.
Sitting suspended at 5.55 p.m. and resumed at 6.10 p.m.
Chairman: Several other people have to ask questions, but I want to let Senator Walsh briefly finish off the final question he was about to pose. I rushed him towards the end, but I had to because I barely made it to the Dáil vote.
Senator Jim Walsh: I understand that. I knew there was time pressure because of the vote. I just want to re-emphasise the issue of the cultural centre. I would like the decision to be rescinded because the amount of money involved is so small. I have made the point in the Seanad that the savings made by this closure come to one ninth of the cost of the recent appointment of tipstaffs for the Judiciary, a post which should be abolished, for example. A range of options are available. If Fianna Fáil is returned to office, the embassy to the Holy See will be reopened.
Senator David Norris: In that case we will be waiting a long time.
Chairman: I have given Senator Jim Walsh some leeway. We are not meant to be political at this committee.
Senator Jim Walsh: If the decision to close the embassy to the Holy See is not rescinded, will a cultural centre be set up there to act as a focal point, on which we could rebuild the relationship with the Vatican?
In his report the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade claimed trade with Iran was not progressing. The committee met the Iranian ambassador on the day it was decided to close the Irish Embassy in Tehran. His note claimed there had been a large increase in merchandise trade with Iran, with Irish exports to the country in 2010 valued at €81.6 million, an increase of 79% on the figure for the previous year.
The Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade shares our concerns about the case of Pastor Jousef Nadarkhani and other human rights issues in Iran. Will he agree our influence and input in these affairs would be better served by a residential ambassador in Iran? A similar point was made about our involvement in East Timor and expertise in conflict resolution. The East Timor mission involved only one diplomat; therefore, the cost was minuscule.
Deputy Dara Murphy: Ireland has 56 embassies, but the Lisbon treaty refers to enhanced diplomatic co-operation between EU member states. If 27 member states have an average of 56 embassies each, it means there are 1,512 EU embassies. The financial difficulties with the euro, the closure of our three embassies and the fact there are 20 small EU member states should open a discussion on a European level about sharing the costs of embassies. I am not suggesting Ireland would not continue to have a presence abroad for trade and diplomacy purposes. However, there might be merit in small member states pooling resources to achieve efficiencies. It might lead to the net effect of having 80 embassies in which we would have a presence rather than the exclusive presence we have in 56 embassies.
Senator Fidelma Healy Eames: I have received much feedback about the closure of the embassy to the Vatican. During the summer the Taoiseach made a courageous speech which marked a watershed in Vatican-Irish relations. The Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade has an ongoing dialogue with the Vatican on the issue of clerical child abuse, which is welcome and needed for national self-esteem, while showing a firm position. However, the timing of the closure of the embassy to the Holy See was regrettable. It was poor and I am struck by the hurt it has unleashed, some of which is in unusual quarters. Many see the closure as offensive. My concern is that much of the good work done by the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade in facing the Vatican on child abuse issues has been undone by the closure. It would be advisable to try to bridge the gap about which other members spoke.
What are we saving by having a Dublin-based ambassador to the Holy See as opposed to one based in Rome, particularly when the latter shared a building with the ambassador to Italy? Few believe the closure was a financial decision. It is regrettable and I do not want to see the courageous steps we have taken in facing down the Vatican on the issue of child abuse, which is so needed, being undone.
Chairman: The Vice Chairman, Deputy Bernard Durkan, would like to say a few words. He should ask questions, if possible.
Deputy Bernard J. Durkan: I will do my best as always. It is regrettable embassies have to be closed at any time. No matter what time is picked, it will be difficult. In fact, to further trade we should be opening embassies, which I know is the long-term ambition and will happen. However, the fact remains that we are in a serious financial position. It may well be that savings made by these closures, for example, are small comparative to the overall debts we face, but they all contribute in a small fashion. We all speak about the hardships we have imposed on the population. This too must be taken in the context of the overall weight of the debt and responsibility. We have all received representations from various interest groups on the closures. It would be far better if we could keep open the embassies and open new ones to maximise our diplomatic impact and establish new trade contacts. However, we are in the situation we are in and we have to work our way out of it as best we can. The facts of life are stark. The boom times are no longer with us. I am not attributing political blame but pointing to the stark facts facing us.
I apologise I did not ask any questions.
Chairman: I thought that would happen.
Deputy Eamon Gilmore: I thank those members who praised the work and quality of the diplomatic service. We have an outstanding diplomatic service. We have a diplomatic corps of which we can be very proud. We need to take that as our starting point because there are very few of them. As I stated in my presentation, there is 340, including not only the staff of my Department but also staff of other Departments who work in embassies around the world. Let us look at what we have.
We have a total of 340 diplomatic staff. There have been budget cuts in my Department in the order of 30% since the beginning of the recession which has impacted on embassy budgets and the Department budget and on staffing as well. The recruitment embargo applies to my Department the same as everywhere else. The Department has missions in 56 countries. Some 26 of those are the other EU states, which leaves 30. That is the extent of our missions in countries abroad.
As I indicated in my opening statement, the Department had been approaching the cuts in the budgets, restrictions on staffing, etc., by spreading itself very thinly. However, there is only so far one can go in that respect. There comes a time when one must look at what is being done, decide that spreading thin does not work anymore and make choices about where one wants to deploy the limited resources that are available. That is the approach I have taken to this.
The closure of embassies is nothing to do with any resigning from commitment on issues of human rights or aid, far from it. We have a strong record, of which we are proud, on human rights. We are seeking election to the United Nations Human Rights Council next year. We have a strong record on human rights and that will continue.
We have a strong reputation on aid. I am glad that even in difficult times, we are maintaining a strong commitment to aid and to the poorest of the world. It is something of which we, as a country, can be proud. I believe that there is public support for that. I believe that we do it well and that has been vouched for in various studies.
There is practical work that we must do. There are Irish citizens abroad and we must deliver a consular service to them. There are Irish citizens who are living in major centres. We all will be aware to where Irish emigrants have gone, including the United States, Australia, the UK and various part of Europe. More recently there are many of our young people in Canada. We must deliver a consular service to those citizens. We must also deliver a service to emigrants who left this country decades ago in bad times, some of whom are living in bad circumstances. We must show them that the Irish still remembers them, cares about them and provides emigrant support services for them.
We must provide a consular service to those who go on holidays. Increasingly, Irish people are going on holidays to many and varied places. Unfortunately, sometimes people, either of their own accord or because of circumstances completely outside of their control, get into difficulty or there are accidents, health problems or whatever, or they simply lose their passport or they get robbed or whatever, and the first port of call is the embassy. Back here in Dublin, in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, we run a 24-7 services so that there is a point of contact for Irish people, irrespective of where they are in the world. If they go missing, if there is a difficulty of some kind, their family can make contact with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and they are followed up through embassies, consulates, etc.
In looking at the limited resources that we have available to us, and looking then also at our other commitments - these are the direct services that we provide to citizens - one looks then at the need to maintain our position in the European Union. We must maintain an embassy in each of the capitals of the European Union. The European Council meets and makes important decisions that affect this country. Some of our missions in European capitals are now down to one diplomat. We cannot reduce it any further than that and I do not believe anybody would argue that we should not have a mission in European capitals.
We then must look at the areas where there is potential for us to grow our trade opportunities and for us to lead, as we are doing through the Export Trade Council and through the increasingly co-ordinated approach that we are using with the other agencies such as Enterprise Ireland, IDA Ireland, Tourism Ireland and Bord Bia to try to develop an Ireland house concept where the embassy provides a lead in countries. One should look at the map of the world. In South America, we have two resident missions, in Argentina and Brazil. It is not enough. When one looks at where we are in Asia and the number of missions that we have there it is not enough. We probably should be doing more.
The argument made here centres on whether we are better to have a resident embassy in a country. Of course it is better to have a resident embassy. There are several arguments which can be made for that. Unfortunately we must operate in present circumstances where we must do more with less and where we must spread ourselves thinly. The approach I take to this is one for which I take political responsibility. It was not purely a political decision. There had been a review of missions which had been underway for some time. I take political responsibility for the recommendation and for the case that I made to Government for it. The approach I am taking is that we must consolidate and focus what we are doing so that we can maximise the consular service that we provide to citizens, maximise our impact at European Union level, maximise the support we provide to our aid programme and maximise our influence in the world through having effective missions operating in the multilateral organisations. I believe we are doing well in that context but we are doing it with very limited resources. In that context, I came to the conclusion that we had to reduce the number of our overseas missions.
On the selection of the missions that we have chosen, the Timor-Leste mission was established to support an aid programme when the country won its independence. It was used initially to provide support, recognition and a presence there. That is not required anymore. Our programme in Timore Leste is approximately €3 million. It can be adequately supported from our embassy in Singapore and I was satisfied that we did no longer needed a resident mission there.
I also would have preferred if we had been able to retain a resident mission in Iran but choices must be made. When one looks at the range of commitments that we will have over the course of the next period of time - the Chair of the OSCE next year, the Presidency of the European Union in the early part of 2013, trying to make an impact in the area of the Middle East peace process and maintaining a strong presence in the UN to do that - it becomes a case not only about funding but about the use of our personnel.
In the case of the Holy See, the position is that it is not possible for the ambassador to Italy to also be the ambassador to the Holy See. That is not permitted by the Holy See. That might have been an option in those circumstances but it is not one that is permitted. On the building, the Villa Spada, it is our intention that the embassy in Italy and the residence of the ambassador to Italy will be relocated to it which will reduce the rental costs associated with the embassy in Italy. I am told that the approach to the use of the same building for two embassies or two offices, or offices associated with two separate embassies, is relaxing somewhat. If it is, then perhaps that opens up some opportunities for us to maintain an office presence for the ambassador to the Vatican.
Senator Jim Walsh: Would the Minister consider putting an ambassador—–
Chairman: The Minister, without interruption.
Senator Jim Walsh: I am sorry for interrupting.
Chairman: The Senator can ask his question afterwards.
Deputy Eamon Gilmore: I am conscious, and I was conscious at the time the decision was made, of the historical nature of the embassy to the Vatican. For that reason, before any public announcement was made I communicated with Cardinal Brady and Archbishop Martin to inform them of the decision that had been taken. That was done as a matter of courtesy.
Senator Jim Walsh: Did that happen the same afternoon?
Deputy Eamon Gilmore: Yes. These stories do not hold, as Senator Walsh knows.
Senator Jim Walsh: Yes.
Deputy Eamon Gilmore: We are living in a world of modern communications. People will tweet these things before one can blink.
Senator Jim Walsh: I understand that although I am not into tweeting.
Deputy Eamon Gilmore: It happened the same afternoon. I communicated with Cardinal Brady and Archbishop Martin before any public statement was made by me or by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. The Department communicated directly with the Vatican and the representative of the papal nuncio in Dublin. All of that happened before any public announcement was made. It has to be acknowledged that the Government has decided to appoint the country’s most senior diplomat as the non-resident ambassador to the Holy See. That underlines the importance we attach to the mission to the Vatican. I think the public attaches a similar importance to it.
The total saving in respect of the Vatican, on a full-year basis, will be approximately €800,000. Some of that is associated with the savings that will be made on the premises. The total saving in respect of all three missions will be approximately €1.2 million in a full year.
I was asked whether we consulted the European External Action Service about the closure of the embassies. No, we did not. It is not our practice to consult in such a manner. We make decisions of this nature as a country and as a Government. It is not a matter of consultation with the service, which has been growing since it was established. Deputy Dara Murphy was right to say the service provides a new context for the operation of our diplomatic service. It is not a substitute for EU member states having their own diplomatic presence in individual countries, and will not be for the foreseeable future. The European External Action Service acts on behalf of the EU only in so far as the foreign affairs remit of the Union is concerned. In addition, some countries would prefer to deal directly with individual member states, rather than with the service. That is particularly true with regard to certain functions.
A question was asked about the dean of the diplomatic corps, which is an honorary position. It is usually determined by tradition. In some countries, the longest-serving ambassador is designated as the dean. In many countries, for historical or traditional reasons the papal nuncio or apostolic nuncio has been deemed to be the dean. We do not have any plans to change the practice here. That will remain the position.
Speakers referred to the credentials of the ambassador who is to be appointed to the Holy See. Senator Walsh is right to say a ceremony will take place tomorrow at which non-resident ambassadors will present themselves at the Holy See. We had notified the Holy See of our nominee, but it is not intended that he will present himself tomorrow. That is not our choice. That decision was made in the Vatican. We are ready for the new ambassador to hand in his credentials whenever that can be accommodated by the Vatican.
I wish to speak about the appointment of the new papal nuncio to Ireland. I understand the intention is that the position will be continued on a residential basis here. The Government has already agreed to the nomination of Monsignor Brown, or Archbishop Brown as he will be in the new year. I look forward to his arrival here and to meeting him.
I think I have covered most of the questions. I do not know whether I have failed to address any particular question.
Senator Jim Walsh: Can the Minister comment on the cultural centre?
Deputy Eamon Gilmore: Our diplomatic relations with all three states are continuing.
Senator Jim Walsh: I accept that.
Deputy Eamon Gilmore: There is no pulling away from that. We will serve Timor-Leste from elsewhere. We have an aid programme in Timor-Leste. That will continue. It has a period of time to run. It will be supported from Singapore.
This country’s intention is to accredit an ambassador from one of the neighbouring countries to Tehran. We will have an ambassador to Iran on a non-residential basis. I have spoken to the Iranian foreign minister to explain the circumstances in which the decision was made. Although there is understandable disappointment in Tehran, there is also an understanding of our position. I made it clear to the minister that Ireland is not ending its diplomatic relations with Iran. We will continue to have strong diplomatic relations with Iran, albeit on a non-residential basis.
When the new ambassador to the Holy See is enabled to commence his duties - it is at the discretion of the Vatican authorities to decide when to facilitate that - I am sure he will look at other ways of strengthening and enhancing our diplomatic relations with the Holy See in the context of circumstances in which we will not have a resident ambassador there. I have an open mind on that.
I was asked whether we will review these decisions. We will keep our diplomatic footprint under review. We will deploy our diplomatic spread as effectively as we can. I do not have any other plans for the closure of missions. When our economic circumstances improve - I am absolutely confident that they will - we can consider the expansion of our resident missions. Clearly, the missions we have closed will be assessed in that context.
Senator David Norris: I asked about the representation to Iran. I appreciate the Minister’s answer. I was about to come back in and see if I could get a response. The Minister’s comments seem rather vague. It does not seem that much thought was given to the closure. I presume the surrounding countries that were mentioned by the Minister include Egypt, Israel, Palestine and Jordan. Can the Minister indicate where the ambassador might be? When will we have an idea? It is clear that some of the potential arrangements would be difficult. I cannot imagine a resident ambassador in Tel Aviv being accepted by Iran.
Deputy Eamon Gilmore: I have decided from where it is intended to service Tehran. We would normally get the agreement of Iran and as a matter of courtesy I would rather have its agreement before addressing the matter.
Senator David Norris: I understand.
Deputy Pádraig Mac Lochlainn: I sought an assurance from the Tánaiste that we would continue to play a proactive role in assisting the ongoing transitions from oppressed colonies to functioning states. I do not get such a reassurance from him, however. In regard to Iran, how can we play a role as a peace broker in that region or maintain our standing above other European states and, certainly, the US? I ask the Tánaiste to submit to the committee a report from his Department outlining in clear terms how the three non-resident ambassadors will engage with the states in question.
Senator Michael Mullins: I welcome the possibility that the Villa Spada could facilitate the two embassies. When is it expected that the Holy See will indicate whether this would be an acceptable arrangement?
Deputy Eamon Gilmore: I do not want members to be under the false impression that it is the intention to reinstate a separate resident ambassador to the Holy See. I do not see us being in a position to make such an appointment. If we can find a way of using the Villa Spada to house the embassy to Italy and an office or other way of servicing our non-resident ambassador to the Holy See, we will certainly put it to that use.
In regard to Deputy Mac Lochlainn’s question about our place in the world, we make a big impact on world affairs for a small country with a limited diplomatic service. We are a highly respected member of the United Nations and we are seeking membership of the United Nations Human Rights Commission for next year. We play an active role in multilateral and international organisations. Next year I will hold the chair of one of the most significant of these organisations, the OSCE, which comprises 56 member states across most of the northern hemisphere. Chairing it will give us an opportunity to play an active role in conflict resolution, human rights and good economic and environmental governance. For reasons with which we are all familiar, our participation in the European Union is very important to us and we are playing an active role in this regard. Our resident missions have to be constructed around that work.
An enormous amount of work is being done through our aid programme, which is highly regarded internationally and has a significant impact. Apart from the aid it provides to the countries in which we operate programmes, it is also a way of investing in the future given that, for example, the rate of economic growth in Africa suggests significant potential for trade links.
Deputy Pádraig Mac Lochlainn: I made a specific request for a report. For all the reasons that the Tánaiste outlined, could a report be prepared by the Department on our ongoing engagement with Iran, East Timor and the Vatican?
Deputy Eamon Gilmore: I am prepared to respond to questions or provide information about the work we are doing in respect of any area.
Deputy Pádraig MacLochlainn: I am specifically interested in written reports on the aforementioned countries in terms of when the links will be formally restored and what is envisaged in respect of the programme for engagement. I do not ask for the Tánaiste to come before us.
Deputy Eamon Gilmore: I can provide that information.
Chairman: The Deputy can also raise the m