The Catholic Church sought £100,000 from the State before it would surrender ownership of the Papal Cross in the Phoenix Park, claiming it was owed this money from the visit of John Paul II to Ireland.
The State papers released under the 30-year rule show that former taoiseach Charles Haughey took a close personal interest in developing the site, and was anxious to create a “pleasant sylvan setting” around the cross.
However, the plan hit a roadblock in April 1981 when the Office of Public Works reported it was “unable to progress further . . . as ownership of the cross is still retained by the hierarchy.
“The hierarchy are refusing to transfer ownership, as costs approx £100,000 arising out of the papal visit which the taoiseach promised that the State would bear, have not been paid.
“When OPW requested sanction to meet these costs, the Department of Finance raised with the Attorney General’s Office the constitutionality of paying the bills of the hierarchy of a particular religion out of public funds.”
A note in the margins referred to the prospect of resolving the matter without seeking the AG’s advice which could be “counterproductive at times”.
Asked about the matter in recent days, the OPW was unable to establish whether money changed hands.
Previously released papers show the State had anticipated a security bill of up to £2 million arising from the papal visit but decided against seeking reimbursement from the church.
Haughey was instrumental in the plan for developing the site around the cross, rejecting the OPW’s contention – recorded in an April 1980 memo – that the cross would be “a most intrusive feature” and “out of harmony with the general character of the park landscape”.
A memo from the same month noted the taoiseach had initially been “not too happy with the proposal to retain the cross” but changed his mind following a meeting with Archbishop of Dublin Dermot Ryan.
Ironically, given the church’s later plea for money, it is recorded that at the same meeting the archbishop asked the government to waive unspecified bills owed to three departments.
A memo dated April 9th, 1980, said Haughey agreed to the request. “He undertook also to have enquiries made with a view to seeing whether the ESB and Aer Rianta would be prepared to remit (or reduce) their accounts.”
Of the cross, Haughey wrote 10 months later saying he was “very disappointed at the slow progress” on developing the site. Tenders were then sought but the project stalled over the church’s financial demands and changes of government.
Back in power in November 1982, Haughey wrote to minister of state Sylvie Barrett that “effort should be made to make it [the site] attractive, even inspirational. I think we should go for an abundance of trees of all kinds and create a pleasant sylvan setting in which visitors coming to see the cross can relax.”
He also asked for a sketch of the proposed layout of trees, including white birch chosen because its white trunk and yellowish foliage reflected the papal colours.
In the event, no birch trees were planted, the OPW said this week. “However a line of oaks were planted either side of the path in the area and these were interspersed with Acers,” more commonly known as maples.