The Irish embassy in London: Ireland has 76 missions overseas

Speculation is rife this weekend about what areas recommended for chopping by An Bord Snip Nua could ultimately escape the axe.

The Department of Foreign Affairs has now fired its own salvo in a bid to save 20 of our overseas diplomatic missions from closure, which would save the taxpayer an estimated €14m each year.

A spokesman for the department said the country's current network of 75 overseas offices "is modest in scale when compared to other equivalent states" and claimed they would pay an important role in supporting Ireland's economic recovery.

"Compared to Ireland's network of 75 offices overseas, Denmark has 121 missions, the Netherlands has 158 and Finland has 97," he said.

"In addition, most of our missions are small compared to the representation of other equivalent states, for example: Ireland has approximately 340 Irish diplomats serving abroad (including officers from other government departments), while Finland has 800 diplomats, the Netherlands has 1,500 and Norway has 630. Three-quarters of Irish embassies are served by only two or three diplomatic officers."

In a thinly veiled warning about the potential impact of reducing the state's diplomatic missions, the spokesman noted that among the key functions of Ireland's diplomatic network is the advancement of "Ireland's economic interests through working with others in the public and private sectors to expand trade and tourism, and inward investment in Ireland".

"Ireland's diplomatic missions and consular offices are dedicated to the pursuit of Ireland's interests abroad and to enhancing Ireland's international profile," he said.

"The objective of this department is, to the greatest extent possible and within the limits of available resources, to maintain the capability of Ireland's diplomatic network overseas in order to promote our key objectives abroad, particularly support for our economic recovery."

The comments follow the revelation that, in its submission to An Bord Snip Nua, the Department of Finance had outlined three different "clusters" of embassies which could be closed to save money.

This included closing most diplomatic missions in North America, including Canada and Mexico, or closing missions to "smaller" European countries such as those in the newer accession countries of central and eastern Europe.

A third scenario was that it cut back on missions in Asia and elsewhere.

The McCarthy report subsequently recommended Ireland's diplomatic network be reduced from 76 (including Cardiff, which has since been closed) to 55, although it did not specify which individual missions should be shut down.

Separate reports which emerged last week revealing the DFA spent almost $1.3m to refurbish the New York apartment of the Irish ambassador to the UN – including around $30,000 a month to provide alternative accommodation in midtown Manhattan – could hardly have come at a worse time.

But while acknowledging a "small number" of larger missions such as the permanent representative to the EU cost "significantly more," the spokesman said "most Irish embassies are modest in size, the annual running costs of which would be around €500,000 per annum".

He added that all embassies have been affected by budget cuts over the past two years.

"While these cuts have impacted on the budgets and staffing of missions overseas, every effort is being made to minimise the impact on the frontline services provided to Irish citizens and Irish businesses overseas," he said.

"It is essential, if Ireland is to promote and protect its vital interests in the EU, that we have the ability to build relationships with key policy-formers in capitals early and often, both before and during the process.

"Our embassies in most EU states are already small and economical by the standards of our partners. The department is continuously looking to see if we can further reduce the costs of these offices while maintaining their ability to meet their objectives."

Facing the chop: Irish embassies in trouble

* Central and Eastern Europe

Latvia (Riga); Czech Republic (Prague); Slovenia (Ljubljana); Estonia (Tallinn); Paris: permanent representation to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)

* America

Canada (Ottawa); USA (Boston – consulate general); USA (Chicago – consulate general); USA (San Francisco – consulate general); Mexico (Mexico City)

* Asia

Korea(Seoul); Malaysia (Kuala Lumpur); Singapore (Singapore); Vietnam (Hanoi)

Source: Department of Finance submission to McCarthy expenditure review group, which outlined regions where savings might be made