Kate Oliver

Second Secretary | Irish Embassy, Vienna

  Role:  Second Secretary at the  Irish Embassy in Vienna, Austria    Education:  BA in French and Classical Civilisation at  Trinity College, Dublin  | M. Phil in Inter-Disciplinary Gender Studies at  the University of Cambridge    Previous work:  British-Irish Relations Section in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade | Internships at  the United Nations Population Fund  and  Gavi    |  The Alliance Française in Dublin    Languages:  French and German   Recommended readings:  I recommend getting familiar with the big literary figures from your own country, as well as the new up-and-coming writers. Most people are more likely to know about and feel comfortable discussing your country's cultural offering than its politics or history, so that's what you're going to end up chatting about once you go on posting!

Role: Second Secretary at the Irish Embassy in Vienna, Austria

Education: BA in French and Classical Civilisation at Trinity College, Dublin | M. Phil in Inter-Disciplinary Gender Studies at the University of Cambridge

Previous work: British-Irish Relations Section in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade | Internships at the United Nations Population Fund and Gavi | The Alliance Française in Dublin

Languages: French and German

Recommended readings: I recommend getting familiar with the big literary figures from your own country, as well as the new up-and-coming writers. Most people are more likely to know about and feel comfortable discussing your country's cultural offering than its politics or history, so that's what you're going to end up chatting about once you go on posting!

Interview by Hannah McCarthy

Kate, thanks for taking the time to speak to Women in Foreign Policy (WIFP). As the second secretary at the Irish Embassy in Vienna, what does your role entail?

Our mission in Austria is quite unusual in that it has a multilateral and bilateral function.  Most missions have a bilateral or multilateral role, for example, the Irish Permanent Mission to the United Nations (“UN”) in New York, or the Permanent Representation of Ireland to the European Union (“EU”) in Brussels. As there are a lot of international organisations located in Vienna, the Irish Embassy here has a multilateral function with them but also looks after Ireland’s bilateral relationship with Austria. The Embassy is quite unusual in that sense, but that mixture is also what makes it quite exciting and varied to work at.

In terms of the multilateral side of my role, there are two UN organisations for which I am primarily responsible: the UN Office on Drugs and Crime and the UN Industrial Development Organisation. On the bilateral side, I look after the Embassy’s cultural programming and budget and its relationship with the Irish community in Austria. Both of those involve the planning of St. Patrick’s Day celebrations and public outreach, such as social media and newsletters. I also look after the consular issues in the embassy. The local staff do the day-to-day work regarding visa and passport applications, foreign birth registration or queries from Irish citizens who are looking for advice and guidance. However, I am ultimately responsible for that consular assistance and I also look after the routine and day-to-day administration of the mission.

How did you end up working at the Embassy in Austria, did you have any previous experience of working in Austria or experience of the work that the UN agencies in Vienna do?

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is growing at the moment so when I was going through the postings process, there were about 25 options. Of the available choices, I was very interested in the multilateral postings, and Austria was my third choice.  For me, the opportunity to do both the bilateral work with the Austrian-Irish relationship and the multilateral work with the UN Agencies was really interesting.

I studied French at college so I already spoke French to a high standard and I was interested in learning a second language to a high standard. I thought German would be a good option and I also felt I was more interested in the role in Vienna than in Berlin.

My allocation for a foreign posting worked out quite well for me, but obviously that is not going to be the case for everyone, however, that is part of working for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. You might not always get your first, second or third choice and you ultimately have to go where you are sent.  

What roles have you had so far with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade?

When I started at the Department, I was assigned to the British-Irish Relations team which was a terrific role that involved working with great people. I started six weeks before the Brexit vote, so it was such an exciting time to come on-board. I saw the preparations for Brexit in government and in different departments and then saw the reaction when the result of the referendum came in. It was a diverse role which involved a lot of research and drafting responses to queries from the public and to parliamentary questions, and preparing speaking and briefing material for ministerial visits.

I also worked on the two royal visits to Ireland by Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall in 2016 and 2017 which was a huge opportunity to work closely with our own protocol and communications teams within the Department and also with the British Embassy within Ireland. It was great to have the opportunity to be involved with the first visit and then be able to apply my knowledge and experience to the second visit.

I was also loaned to the Houses of the Oireachtas (the Irish Parliament) as a clerk to the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly, which is a group of parliamentarians from across Ireland, England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales and the Crown Dependencies who meet in plenary sessions twice a year, have a number of sub-committees and carry out inquiries into various issues that are of shared interest. It was interesting to be involved with as a parliamentary servant because it is very different from being a civil servant. It was good to get insight into parliament and to meet colleagues who worked there.

You have spoken about working with protocol teams and communications teams, and also about how some of the overseas missions are multilateral whereas some are bilateral. Is there a set-career track you are supposed to take where you are expected to become, for example, a protocol or trade negotiations experts or can you move between areas?

There is a specialist stream for development specialists, and that is contained within the Department, as are the diplomatic stream and general service stream. Amongst the diplomatic and general service stream, there is no particular set career track, and everyone is expected to be a generalist. 

My background before I arrived was French politics, gender, and a little bit in public health, so I was hoping and expecting to be assigned to our Development Cooperation Division that looks after Irish Aid abroad. I was surprised to be assigned to the British-Irish relations team, and also my career had not necessarily lead up to me being a natural choice for that role in Vienna. But one of the real benefits of working for the Department is that you can have such a varied career as a generalist and try so many things all within the same institutions.

Did you always want to pursue a career in foreign affairs, or is it something you decided on by chance, or after exploring some other areas?

In college, I never had a clear idea of what I wanted my next step to be. I studied French and Classical Civilisation and when I graduated in 2012 I was aware that I had very academic French. I really wanted to perfect my French and see what it would be like to live in France for a while. So I went to Paris and worked as a language assistant for a year. That experience very quickly ruled out teaching for me as I was clear to me that I not suited to working with children. Then I worked at the Alliance Française for a year in Dublin but I also realised that that wasn’t quite the right fit for me either.

At this stage, the Department began recruiting for the first time since the recruitment freeze [that was put in place after the financial crisis] and I was really interested in the job description and having tried a couple of things after college it began to sound like it would suit me much better and be much more interesting for me. I applied to the Department and at the same time applied for a masters in gender studies at the University of Cambridge, and progressed both applications at the same time. 

Ultimately I found out that I wasn't successful in that first competition that I applied to so I went and pursued my masters. After that, I undertook two internships in public health but in the back of my head I thought that if another competition was announced I would apply again. Fortunately, another competition was announced in 2014. I applied and I was successful in that one. I think I was a much better candidate when I applied the second time as I had a masters, international work experience, and the benefit of having gone through the competition process before. 

How did you prepare for the application process for the Department of Foreign Affairs? What was your experience of going through that process?

My overriding impression of going through the process was that it was very long - it took ten months from me making an application to being offered a role in the Department. The advantage of that, however, was that I did have a lot of time to talk to people who had worked in the Department, or who had left the Department, or who worked in related fields or organisations. I also spent a lot of time reading the publicly available reports and strategy documents that all government departments have which was helpful for understanding what the Department’s plans and aims for the coming years were. 

I also used the career service offered by my old college to prepare for the interview. I found having a practice interview with someone who was very tough on me really helpful. 

You mentioned that there was a recruitment freeze for a number of years. Has that affected the roles that are available to you and the opportunities to progress within the Department? 

As the Department is in a growth phase at the moment, there are plenty of graduate level entry roles, but there are also lots of promotion opportunities available for the next step-up which is great.

I was fortunate to be successful in the second competition I applied for, as the people who were successful in the first competition after the hiring freeze are fantastic colleagues. They are super competent, really dynamic and motivated - and I had the benefit of working alongside them when they knew the ropes in the Department. Seeing colleagues of their calibre now trailblazing ahead in the Department is really motivating.

Being a diplomat means that your career and how it progresses has a significant impact not just on your working day but also on where you live and perhaps family and friends in Ireland. Do you have a strategy for how you want to manage your postings and roles?

I don't have any solid strategy for that. I am fortunate that my parents are relatively young and I am not facing any caring responsibilities in the near future. My partner also works in IT so has an in-demand skill set and is relatively mobile. I am very lucky in that I have been able to follow work that interests me and pursue opportunities as they have arisen.

What would your advice be for anyone in college who is interested in pursuing a career in diplomacy?

I recommend learning a language. Even if you do not immediately use it, there is long-term value in the foreign or civil service if you can speak a language and also the understanding of what it is to learn a language.

I also recommend living abroad and experiencing what it is like to make that move as that will certainly help when you are posted overseas. You can also seek out internships with the Department or even look at being employed as a member of local staff in one of the embassies abroad. These are paid internships and roles, and you often get a lot of responsibility and real experience of how embassies are run - it is not all Ferrero Rocher, in fact, most times there are no Ferrero Rocher at all.  At the entry grade, there is a lot of paperwork, and you are not thrashing out peace treaties so, if you can, it is good to get the experience of what is like in practice to work for the Department. 

Also, talk to people who work at the Department to understand the reality of the job as you will do better in interviews and, if you are successful, the role is more likely to meet your expectations.

After Vienna, what are your plans or when will you find out where you will go to next?

My posting in Vienna is for three years with a possibility of a fourth, and I am one year into my assignment now. After that, it would depend on the opportunities available which would be to go back to Dublin or take another posting somewhere else. I would definitely be interested in an assignment in Asia which is somewhere where we are growing our presence, and there is much more opportunity to be active and visible. Ireland is also opening up new embassies in the Middle East and North Africa, so that is also a really exciting phase of development and when I pack-up in Vienna in two or three years time that could be a fascinating posting opportunity.