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Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Irish Embassies I've known and loved (and paid for)

I meant to write a post to all the Irish Embassies I've known and loved back when people got their knickers in a twist about our man in Canada getting $11 million to do up his official residence.

I reckoned then as I do now that if people actually knew the opulence of some of our gaffs abroad, there'd be crowds marching with pitchforks and burning crosses towards the Department of Foreign Affairs' HQ at Iveagh House.

One of the embassies I enjoyed the most was the Ambassador's residence in one European country I'm not going to name.

I met the daughter of our chap there on the plane out, and since she was an acquaintance and a nice sort, she invited me round to the official residence. This was fortunate, since my mate who lived in the country had an urgent need of a new passport.

So I belled him on arrival and told him I'd not be staying at his place, and to get his ass around to the residence with a handful of identification, money and some small, square, portrait photos.

We entered via a secure gate and took a private elevator up to the residence. The door opened into a room best described as an indoor football pitch, with angora carpets in each corner, around which were arranged four sofas. That, for the mathematically challenged, is 16 sofas in total.

There was another fellow there, a foreign national though not from the country we were in. He was a pal of our chap and was busy knocking together a joint at the far end of the room. From amid a plume of smoke, he deftly sent the ashtray sliding over the parquet floor towards my sofa.

Our chap greeted me and my mate (and the daughter) warmly with some nice wine. I sat back, supped and inhaled. I had arrived!

That was just the residence. There was an embassy elsewhere of course. Now, Iveagh House would no doubt point to the need for the ambassador to socialise, greet dignitaries, host Paddy's Day piss-ups and so on. But I could simply not get over that football pitch-sized front room. In a city with pretty expensive rents, that gaff cost a mint. And it was rented. And we pay the rent.

Another time, in Africa, I ran into a spot of bother in Mozambique. My problem was that I went on the rampage with some aid workers (the only Irish in the country, apart from some mine owners and the embassy staff) and they told me about this amazing building.

It was built into the cliff overlooking the bay. It was reputedly the most expensive building ever built in the entire country. And it was, of course, the Irish embassy. My problems began when I went out to try and photograph it.

A load of dangerous-looking wide boys with guns were straight out, wanting to know what I was doing. I tried to explain that I was an Irish citizen, taking a nice picture of our embassy. But that wasn't permitted. In short, I was lucky to escape a beating.

A few days later, back across the border in South Africa, I had my passport nicked in Jo'burg airport. I had to head out to Pretoria to get it replaced. Our embassy there was a rented second floor office in a dodgy neighbourhood.

Oddly, it was this embassy that dealt with most of the neighbouring countries. So all the people in Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia and Zambia as well as South Africa, who were looking for visas to Ireland or trying to get passports on the basis of Irish descent, had to go there.

One lad I met had driven down from Bulawayo (for the fourth time) with documents to prove he was entitled to a passport.

I've never understood why the embassy that did all the work was a shitehole we rented and yet we built the most amazing building for our embassy in a country with next to no Irish people in it.

Our gaff in Paris is notoriously splendid. I met a pissed-up DFA civil servant recently who confided in me that she was one of those who allocated the new third secretaries to their foreign postings.

Paris, she said, is nearly always everyone's first choice. She said she even joked about taking bribes from them, such was the demand to go there. She'd certainly been offered them once or twice in the past.

Rome is also palatial and a soft touch of a gig (except of course when crazy Irish people get slaughtered drunk at weddings and fall into the Tiber, or get mowed down by equally crazy drunk Italian drivers.)

And we have innumerable consulates and embassies in places you'd have to wonder whether they were strictly necessary. Eamon Delaney's book on working for Foreign Affairs in the United States - An Accidental Diplomat - is great on the Chicken and Ceili circuit of those postings.

In short, our foreign embassies and ambassadorial residences are a great racket altogether. The ones we need are underfunded. And there is so much unnecessary waste it's unbelievable in the others.

And let's not forget, it isn't just our man in Canada's gaff we're paying for back here in Ireland. It's all of them, plus the infamous COLA.

Mmm, doesn't it taste sweet!

Don't know about the COLA? It's the Cost of Living Allowance that all of them receive if they're in a country with a higher cost of living than Ireland. Which is pretty much nowhere these days, but needless to say the figures have been massaged to make it look like renting a mud hut in Chad is more expensive than running a mansion in Foxrock.

There have to be questions as to how much of this we can keep paying for. Micky Martin, current foreign minister, is apparently conducting a 'review' of our overseas missions, to decide whether we can close a few and save a few bob.

But when he was Health Minister, he commissioned hundreds of such reviews. Everytime there was a decision to be made, he kicked for touch and commissioned a report into it. That's why nothing happened for years.

So don't expect anything to happen now either. Our chaps in places from Canada to Mozambique will continue to enjoy their football pitch-sized living rooms and their COLA, while we keep stumping up the cash for them.

Aren't we the mugs?


itchybollix said...

My aunt worked for UN Consul in the Lebanon in the 50's and 60's. It was fucking nutzoid.

After Colin Powell made his pitch speech for the invasion of Eyeraq at the UN in New York he met reporters for a follow-up. Behind his podium there was a tapestry of Guernica. The yanks fucking covered it up with a white sheet. Wouldn't do to talk about starting a war in front of painting depicting dead and decapitated women, men, children and animals.


I've kind of gone off track but you know what I mean. harney has already fucked off to new zealand for paddy's day. If I was asheep I'd watch my back.

pass the j there. or if you're in the leb, pass the acid.

David H said...

I used to be an expat and I remember our Chinese embassy back in the 1990s. Nice building in Beijing's embassy district but terribly underfunded.

I was ashamed of the sparseness of the decoration, the local receptionist who used to answer the phone with an annoyed "yes?" and, if I remember right, there were perhaps three Irish people there. Our ambassador couldn't string a sentence together in Mandarin to welcome the Chinese at a reception. Ireland looked like a country of right hicks.

I think Foreign Affairs upgraded the status of the Beijing outpost after I left but it really wouldn't surprise me if that meant gold-plating the building while ignoring the development of actual expertise.

I read Delaney's book. I was appalled that our diplomats all coveted the cosy party circuit in NY instead of the far more challenging (and interesting, I think) Tehran posting. I'd like to think that our representatives are the types who devour The Economist every week and swot up on Arabic script in their own time. I guess that's not the case.

Ella said...

Maddening but you know, not all that surprising. Still on a positive note JC, at least you got to enjoy some of the hospitality that you paid for!!

JC Skinner said...

True, Ella. The Ambassador was really spoiling us!
David - couldn't agree more. The only thing worse than the state of some of our important embassies (like China or South Africa) is the state of our junior diplomats.