Department of Foreign Affairs loses seven diplomatic bags in 10 months

Department of Foreign Affairs loses seven diplomatic bags in 10 months

'Since 2018, the data breaches recorded by this department have been deemed low or medium risk to the data subject,' according to a spokeswoman for the Department of Foreign Affairs. Picture: Sam Boal

Seven diplomatic bags — pouches with special status under international law used to transport important items or documents — were lost by the Department of Foreign Affairs in the space of less than a year.

The bags were lost or misplaced in transit on their way to or from Irish embassies and consulates on seven separate occasions between May 2019 and March 2020.

Previous controversies over diplomatic bags

Then taoiseach Charles Haughey with French president Francois Mitterrand and British prime minister Margaret Thatcher and European foreign ministers at the EC summit at Dublin Castle in June 1990. Haughey reportedly had luxury shirts sent to him from Paris in diplomatic bags. Picture: Denis Minihane
Then taoiseach Charles Haughey with French president Francois Mitterrand and British prime minister Margaret Thatcher and European foreign ministers at the EC summit at Dublin Castle in June 1990. Haughey reportedly had luxury shirts sent to him from Paris in diplomatic bags. Picture: Denis Minihane

Under the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, the special pouches cannot be opened or intercepted, and their couriers have diplomatic protection and cannot be arrested or detained.

They are typically used to transport important diplomatic documents or articles between the State and its embassies abroad, but have been employed for controversial purposes in the past.

Former taoiseach Charles Haughey reportedly used diplomatic bags to have his famous Charvet shirts delivered from Paris, while Fianna Fáil attracted criticism in 2004 when it used the bags to send election literature to diplomats abroad.

It was also reported in 2011 that fake diplomatic bags had been used by a Nigerian drugs-trafficking gang in an effort to smuggle cocaine into Ireland from Venezuela.

The seven recent incidents involving diplomatic bags were among 263 data protection breaches recorded by the Department of Foreign Affairs in 2019 and 2020, three-quarters of which related to passport services.

A total of 33 data breaches were reported by embassies or consulates, while 14 occurred in the department’s Foreign Birth Registration section as a result of postal issues, human error, lost documents, and filing problems. The department did not respond when asked whether the loss of diplomatic bags had given rise to any security concerns, or whether it was possible that the lost bags could be used for nefarious purposes.

Breaches were 'low or medium risk'

However, a spokeswoman addressed the issue of data protection breaches more broadly, and said the department takes its responsibilities in this regard very seriously.

“Since 2018, the data breaches recorded by this department have been deemed low or medium risk to the data subject. The main cause of breaches is human error,” she said. “The remainder of the breaches are largely due to external unintentional acts. These are mainly attributed to documents that are correctly addressed but are lost in transit through the postal system.”

She noted that suspected data breaches had occurred in only 0.025% of cases involving the processing of passport and foreign birth registration certificates in 2020.

The data was released under the Freedom of Information Act.

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