Tánaiste's Opening Statment to the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade05 July 2011
Select Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade
Discussion of the 2011 Estimates – 05 July 2011
Members of the Committee
Thank you for the opportunity to present the Estimates of my Department. As we have two Votes to consider, I propose, with your agreement, Mr. Chairman, to focus on Vote 28, which mainly funds the operation of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Minister of State, Jan O’Sullivan will present the budget under Vote 29 which covers the bulk of Ireland’s Official Development Assistance programme, managed by Irish Aid in my Department.
The situation is a little unusual as the Estimates being considered by all the Dáil committees in this period are largely based on a budget drawn up by the former Government. In other circumstances, they would have been considered by the Dáil some time ago.
While I am not well placed to speak about the formulation of the budget, I can offer some views on how I see the resources of the Department being deployed. I am mindful too that we will be joined shortly by colleagues from Seanad Éireann for a discussion of my policy priorities as Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade.
Today we are considering the allocation of taxpayers’ money to my Department. It is my responsibility and that of my Government colleagues to ensure that we get the best return for that expenditure.
What I have seen since receiving my seal of office as Minister in March is an organisation which does not have many significant spending programmes and which relies very heavily on the expertise, experience and commitment of its staff to promote Ireland’s interests and values in the international arena, support Irish business abroad and deliver services to the public.
In that regard, I have been struck by how lean the Irish diplomatic network is in comparison to countries we consider to be similar to ourselves. Our global interests are serviced with many fewer offices and staff than our comparators. For example, we have 76 overseas missions. Denmark, which in many ways is similar in scale and background to ourselves has 121. Likewise, Finland has 800 diplomats serving abroad compared to our 340. This means that we have to work harder and smarter in order to make best use of our resources
In recent months, these resources have been drawn upon to assist Irish citizens affected by the exceptional series of crises of different types which have occurred in New Zealand, Japan, Egypt, Libya and Bahrain.
They have also been deployed in a sustained diplomatic effort to restore Ireland’s international reputation. The programme for this Government has given top priority to re-energising our international engagement – within the EU, within the international multilateral organisations and bilaterally. In doing so, my colleagues and I have drawn on the established relationships maintained by our diplomatic corps in their countries of accreditation and by officials based in Dublin who participate in international negotiations.
All of this is about renewing our investment in our foreign relations. The Taoiseach has spoken in the Dáil about the parlous state in which he has found Ireland’s reputation within the EU. I can only agree with him. It is clear to me that we as a Government and all of us as parliamentarians now need to work together and prioritise the international agenda in a manner that has not been seen for some time.
This Committee can be an important vehicle in reinvigorating our international engagement. You can be assured that I and my Ministerial colleagues will offer you every cooperation and support in your work.
This objective is attainable. We had an extraordinary week in May when the confluence of visits by Queen Elizabeth and President Obama gave us a glimpse of how our resources can be used to leverage benefits for Ireland and project our values with our international partners.
I would like to take this opportunity, Mr.Chairman, to express my appreciation for the extraordinary efforts made by a large number of people within my own Department and in other Government Departments and services to deliver those hugely successful visits.
As Minister, I saw at close quarters the exceptional level of dedication, organisational ability, creativity and flexibility needed to design, develop and implement these itineraries.
In financial terms, our estimate of the cost of those visits to my Department was about €500,000 and it looks as if the actual outturn was closer to €300,000.
While it is pleasing to look back with pride at achievements this year and to look forward with confidence towards future events such as Ireland’s Chairmanship of the OSCE next year and Presidency of the EU in 2013, it would be short-sighted of me not to point out that the pressure of diminishing resources is really beginning to impact on my Department and indeed all Government Departments.
And, let’s be frank, a shortage of resources will continue to constrain our ability to do all the things we want to do. In some cases, we have an option to perhaps implement projects over a longer timeframe but in many cases we will have to raise our effort and smarten our approach but lower our expectations.
Conversely, the demand for Departmental services continues to increase. Our citizens are travelling abroad in growing numbers and to more distant and challenging destinations. This is leading to a larger and more complex consular caseload, including incidents of illness, crime or death and, as I mentioned earlier, large-scale emergency events which have become more common in recent years.
Passport applications are up by 10% compared with 2009 which is placing extreme pressure on the ability of the service to meet public expectations. Regrettably, this is causing some inconvenience – particularly to people looking for passports at short-notice.
I have committed an exceptional level of resources to the Passport Offices in an effort to meet this unprecedented level of demand and the pressure seems to be abating gradually.
At the same time Mr. Chairman, we cannot lose sight of the chronic budgetary situation the country is facing and the Estimates before you reflect that fact. There are reductions in most subhead allocations and the money available to my Department is now 28% lower than it was 3 years ago.
Most of these reductions have been achieved by attacking the Department’s cost base and squeezing savings from every corner of the system. However, there are limits to this approach and we are rapidly approaching them. That is why the Government is conducting a Comprehensive Review of Expenditure.
What we are trying to achieve with the review is effectively a resetting of Government expenditure to address our new priorities with our 2011 level of resources. I cannot anticipate the outcome of the review but I can assure you that I will seek to ensure that my Department is equipped to discharge the responsibilities conferred on it by the Government and the Oireachtas.
I hope that I have been able to help you and the Committee form a view of how the resources allocated to Vote 28 are being managed and applied. I will of course be happy to answer any questions that you or the committee may have after Minister of State O’Sullivan has introduced Vote 29.