I was in a café in downtown Johannesburg, discussing a project with a Japanese friend, when my phone rang. I apologised and answered, and she noticed surprise cross my face. The caller introduced himself, on first-name terms, and proceeded to invite me over to his house. Who was that? she asked, when I’d finished.

“Our Ambassador,” I said. My friend nearly fell out of her chair. The idea of an ambassador cold-calling a fellow citizen was extraordinary to her.

There are two clichés of international diplomacy, and both are enshrined in iconic images on our televisions: Alec Guinness, as the British spy master, George Smiley, navigating the murky world of Cold War espionage; and Ferrero Rocher, piled high on silver platters at glamorous cocktail receptions.

The latter is likely what most people would have in mind when they hear Fine Gael MEP Gay Mitchell call for a rationalisation of our foreign service. We have four ambassadors in Brussels, two in Paris and two in Rome, and ambassadors in each of Malta (population, 400,000) and Cyprus (population 800,000). All nice places to live, no doubt, but what are our men (and women) there doing?

Mitchell’s points are well made. But before dismissing the Irish diplomatic service en masse as an extravagant junket, it’s useful to understand how Irish diplomacy actually differs from many other countries’ foreign services. Diplomats may be well-educated, internationalist representatives of the country, but they’re still a part of a political culture that is almost uniquely parochial and personal. Talking to various diplomats this week, they each stressed how much of their work abroad consisted of looking after Irish people.

They call it “consular services”; you could equally call it “Mrs Doyle” diplomacy. Amongst their international peers, Irish diplomats are involved in providing direct support to Irish citizens abroad to an unusual, and perhaps unique, degree, whether sorting out replacement passports, visiting people in prison, or helping to get coffins home.

A friend of mine, on a solo motorbiking expedition across Africa, came off his bike badly outside Khartoum, in Sudan. He got himself bandaged up, but was then stuck, as he couldn’t get money transferred into Sudan. The honorary consul there, a Sudanese man working for Coca Cola, took him in, fed him, and had him driven right to the Ethiopian border, with the various drivers all refusing any money he offered.

This makes for an intriguing paradox in our foreign service. When cuts are needed, as they are now, most people would automatically assume that they should come in the most far-away (and therefore expensive, and supposedly exotic) places. Where on earth is Maseru, and why do we have an ambassador there? (It’s in Lesotho, southern Africa.) What do the ambassador and three senior officials in Hanoi do?

But these places are precisely where Irish citizens (whether backpackers or businesspeople) will be most vulnerable if misfortune strikes. And a close look at the staffing of our more far-flung missions reveals that most of them have skeleton staffs, and cover numerous countries. In the cases of both Lesotho and Vietnam, and a handful of other countries, our embassies are effectively aid missions, there to help run development programmes and to share experience with the host governments. (Though one might think that some of those governments would be better off without the benefit of our experience.)

The irony, therefore, is that where we can best afford to cut back our diplomatic network is precisely where we have most regular contact: in Europe. There are, broadly, three types of mission in Europe. The first of these are what might be called the “legacy” missions, in the main European capitals, dating back to the early years of the Free State. Then there are the missions at the main multilateral institutions: not just the European Union (in Brussels), but also the United Nations (Geneva), the Council of Europe (Strasbourg), the Partnership for Peace Liaison Office (Brussels), the OECD (Paris), and the OSCE (Vienna). And then there is the host of smaller embassies in the “new” EU member states, such as Vilnius and Bratislava.

Our early foreign missions were a crucial part of the creation of the new Irish state, allowing us to stake our claim as a sovereign nation – despite the poverty of that state. As Pauric Dempsey of the Royal Irish Academy puts it, “it’s all very well declaring yourself a state – but you have to act like a state. We had to assert ourselves, and we had to distinguish ourselves from Britain. Having these embassies was crucially important in the early years.”

To read, for example, the cables back to Dublin from Paris, Berlin and Geneva in the years leading up to World War II (published in the Documents on Irish Foreign Policy series), is to appreciate immediately what was the original purpose of an embassy on foreign soil. In a time of restricted communications and closed borders, embassies were crucial in informing policy and politicians.

Today, though, international intelligence is “open source”. If you want to learn about Libya, you’re likely to get more accurate and quicker information looking at Mark Little’s Storyful website, which hunts out the best sources of “citizen” media in crisis zones, then talking to a diplomat in Tripoli. The age-old, simple diplomatic function of monitoring the local press can be done from any computer, anywhere. And even the face-to-face contacts upon which diplomats pride themselves can, literally, be replicated online, thanks to Skype. (The Department of Foreign Affairs is already using this technology to talk to its own officers in Limerick, in the decentralised Irish Aid division.)

And if we do need “boots on the ground”, thanks to Ryanair, the Eurostar and the TGV, it is as quick and easy to get between many European capitals as it is for many rural TDs to get home to their constituencies on a Thursday night.

This makes Gay Mitchell’s points appear something of a no-brainer. We have diplomatic missions to both the Vatican and Italy in Rome; despite such diplomatic profligacy, the state suffered the ignominy of an inquiry set up by the Oireachtas being ignored by the Vatican, when it refused to reply to a request for information from Judge Murphy’s commission investigating child abuse in the Dublin diocese.

In an area not much greater than Ireland, on the European mainland, we have seven officials of ambassador rank: in Paris, Strasbourg, Luxembourg and four in Brussels. Clearly, some of these could be doubled up – saving not just on staffing, but on the associated expenses, such as residence, travel and children’s education. (The Department of Foreign Affairs was unable to provide detail on such expenses yesterday, saying this was “complicated” and would require a Freedom of Information request.)

The model to follow here is that of Sweden. In 2010, Stockholm announced it was closing embassies in Bratislava, Dakar, Ljubljana, Luxembourg, Sofia – and Dublin. Earlier this year, it closed another five. Since 1990, Sweden has closed 54 foreign missions – and opened 40. Twenty have been closed since 2006. Cecilia Julin at the Swedish  Government Offices Swiss told me this was the result of dual imperatives: to save money, and to constantly review where they could be most effective.

“There’s always a political price,” Julin conceded. “You can’t maintain relations in exactly the same way and with the same closeness. But you have to choose your priorities.” For Sweden, Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso was a priority – they spend a lot of aid money there. Ireland, already well connected through the EU, was not. Instead, Sweden has implemented an innovative system of roving ambassadors: based at HQ in Stockholm, these are specifically assigned to individual countries, and travel there as necessary.

If that sounds neither glamorous nor intrigue-laden, then surely that’s the nature of Europe today. Gay Mitchell, having laboured as an MEP for years, knows this well. Our MEPs conduct constant shuttle diplomacy between their constituencies, Strasbourg and Brussels. It may be laborious – but it’s a good deal cheaper than running foreign residences. If it’s good enough for our elected representatives, perhaps it should be good enough for the mandarins too.

Published in the Irish Daily Mail April 2011.