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Diplomats feud over appointments

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Andrew Bushe

DUBLIN — Irish Foreign Minister David Andrews and his department’s secretary general, Patrick MacKernan, are to meet this Thursday in an effort to resolve a bitter disagreement over the promotion of diplomats within the department. MacKernan is a former Irish ambassador to the United States.

The meeting is the result of telephone conversation between the men at the weekend; in recent months they have only been communicating by letter and written memo.

The row has already resulted in MacKernan, head of the department of Foreign Affairs and Ireland’s top diplomat, asking Andrews to pass on the "deep unhappiness and concern" of his staff to Taoiseach Bertie Ahern.

The row arose as a result of written ministerial directives issued by Andrews since he took office a year ago promoting his preferred candidates to three diplomat posts.

One of the promotions involves the minister’s former private secretary, who became consul general at the new Welsh consulate in Cardiff opened after the Good Friday Peace Agreement.

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Speaking this week from Canada, where he is accompanying President Mary McAleese on her state visit, Andrews said, "I think you will find the matter will be settled and settled for once and for all to the advantage of everybody."

He said they would be discussing new promotion procedures and structures for the department and other matters and then it would be "business as usual."

The meeting follow remarks by Taoiseach Ahern that both were grown men and should settle their differences, but Andrews denied that he had been told by the taoiseach to mend fences in the department.

"I took the initiative myself," Andrews said. "I understood from remarks the taoiseach made in my support that he was anxious to bring closure to the problem and I felt myself that the matter should come to finality."

What’s at issue

Diplomatic promotions are normally made on the recommendation of the department’s management advisory committee. The minister, however, has powers to issue directives on appointments under legislation that came into effect last year.

The minister admitted to the Dail that there were "strains" between him and MacKernan, a former ambassador to both the United States and the European Union.

"Such strains can occur in any relationship," Andrews said. "I want to assure the house that I have very good relationships with every other senior member in the department."

Andrews defended his decisions, saying that he had personally known the diplomats he promoted for many years and one had been "stuck" in a position without promotion for 18 years.

"I decided in my wisdom or unwisdom that there were three very deserving individuals who had been stuck at a level of effort in the department of Foreign Affairs that simply wasn’t fair," he said.

Documents released under the Freedom of Information Act reveal that MacKernan wrote to Andrews on May 26 expressing the disquiet of senior staff.

"I believe it is my duty as secretary general, in view of the deep unhappiness and concern expressed in writing, that you inform the taoiseach of the reaction of these senior officers to the transfers envisaged," MacKernan wrote.

"It is unprecedented that so many senior officers in this department should be transferred or appointed unwillingly to positions despite their formal misgivings."

Another document shows that on July 3, the minister issued a one-line directive to MacKernan ordering two promotions to counselor level.

These involved Conor O’Riordan, former private secretary, for the Cardiff job, and Niall Holohan, who was appointed to the political section of the department.

More recently, another ministerial directive ordered the appointment of new chief of protocol Brian Nason. This job is an assistant secretary post, which is the equivalent of ambassadorial rank.

A department spokesman said the minister had accepted eight recommendations of the MAC and has ordered three additional promotions himself.

Some of the promotions were to posts in the United States and Britain arising out of increasing demands resulting from the Northern Ireland peace process and an increased economic profile in America.

The spokesman said that prior to the change in legislation last year, the minister could promote and did not have to put anything in writing, but the new law brought "more formality to the procedure."

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