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The Kiribati 'embassy' in Welsh village Llanddewi Rhydderch

By Owen Amos
BBC News

image copyrightRuth Sharville
image captionLlanddewi Rhydderch: an unlikely home for a diplomatic base

The list of embassies in the UK takes you on a tour of London's most expensive streets.

The United States are in Mayfair, the Chinese embassy is near Regent's Park and the French are based in Knightsbridge, a short walk from Harrods.

Then there is the honorary consulate of Kiribati. The Pacific nation's diplomatic base is in Llanddewi Rhydderch, a village in the hills of Monmouthshire, south Wales.

"The nearest shop is in Abergavenny, which is five and a half miles away," said the honorary consul, Michael Walsh.

Kiribati has three embassies - in Fiji, Taipei, and the UN in New York - and nine honorary consulates, in places such as Australia, Japan, and Hawaii.

"But for a country as small and poor as Kiribati, overseas representation is just too expensive," said Mr Walsh.

And so his home in Llanddewi Rhydderch, a three-hour drive from London, doubles as Kiribati's consulate in the UK. For the bright lights and flash bulbs of international relations, look elsewhere.

Mr Walsh, 65, is unpaid in his role as honorary consul and said diplomatic work takes up around "an hour or two a day".

He issues visas from his home, although, as Kiribati one of the least-visited countries in the world, the workload is not overwhelming.

"I issued a lot of visas when I first started, but it's died away virtually to nothing now," he said.

"A few years ago we liberalised the regime, so all EU citizens can go visa-free. This year I've had a Kuwaiti, a couple of South Africans. There are hardly any these days."

The only person to pick up a visa in person was "a Serbian around five years ago".

"He insisted he was going to drive here to pick it up," said Mr Walsh. "Next thing you know, he's at the house."

image copyrightMichael Walsh
image captionKiribati's honorary consulate in the UK does not have special diplomatic status

With barely any passports to stamp, most of Mr Walsh's time is spent "dealing with enquiries".

"I probably get 30 or 40 a week, usually by email these days," he added.

"You name it, I've had the query. People who suddenly decide they want to live there, or worse - people who suddenly want to buy large tracts of land. Usually Americans."

Unfortunately for them, you cannot buy Kiribati land unless you are a citizen. On top of that, you must trace your Kiribati ancestry to before 1900.

"They do not wish any of their land to be alienated and I thoroughly support that policy," Mr Walsh said.

image copyrightAP
image captionMillennium Island in Kiribati. The country was the first inhabited place to see in the 21st century

Despite being Kiribati's only representative in Europe, Mr Walsh is not officially a diplomat.

His house has no diplomatic status, although being an honorary consul does have some perks.

"The Treaty of Vienna (1961) gives me certain immunities if I'm conducting business on behalf of the government of Kiribati," he explained.

"No one can open my post, things like that. But let's just say, I'm not very high up the diplomatic pecking order."

image copyrightMichael Walsh
image captionMichael Walsh met his wife, Nei Rotee, on Kiribati

The honorary consul is also Kiribati's representative on various international bodies in London.

"I think there are around 42," he said. "But some are notional, because I can't get to everything.

"I go to Commonwealth secretariat meetings; occasionally the FCO (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) will have something I need to go to."

Mr Walsh first went to Kiribati in 1971, when it was still part of the British colony, the Gilbert and Ellice Islands (the colony had split into the sovereign states of Kiribati and Tuvalu by the end of the 1970s).

He worked as an economic adviser to the government, and a two-year stay soon turned into five and in 1975 he married a Kiribati woman. He and Nei Rotee have three children and three grandchildren.

Although he left Kiribati in 1976 and began working in the private sector in 1980s, Mr Walsh was asked by the Kiribati president to become honorary consul in 1996. He has held the job ever since.

"I think I was the only person willing to take it on," he says, modestly.

There isn't a huge Kiribati expatriate community to manage in the UK. Mr Walsh estimates there are 50 people from the country in Britain, but he added: "I'm only officially responsible for those who are Kiribati citizens, of which there are around five."

He occasionally has to deal with lost passports, and once had to arrange interpreters for two Kiribati men being prosecuted in the UK. "Both those chaps got off," he said, with what may be a hint of pride.

This summer he helped the Kiribati Commonwealth Games team that competed in Glasgow. "You may have noticed that we won our first gold medal this year, in weightlifting. It immediately projected us to number one in medals per capita," he said.

Mr Walsh retired from a career in management consultancy three years ago, but more than 40 years after he turned up in Tarawa, the main atoll of Kiribati - his work for his adopted nation goes on.

And do not think that he would swap embassies with the Americans, the Chinese, or the French, no matter how far Llanddewi Rhydderch is from Harrods.

"We're quite happy on our mountaintop in Monmouthshire," he said.

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