An embassy in the Vatican


THE CONTROVERSY over the decision in November to close our embassy to the Vatican will not lie down and die. The Fine Gael parliamentary party, including Minister of State for European Affairs Lucinda Creighton, last week unanimously backed a call for a review. And, yesterday, former secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs Seán Donlon, in an interview with the Irish Examiner, made a strong case both that the closure is a mistake that should be reviewed, and that the ostensible reason for the closure – lack of an economic return – was nonsense. “There was almost no economic function,” he said. “We didn’t trade in buying and selling indulgences.”

Donlon’s central thesis is right – that a decision to close the embassy should not be a hostage to a chill in the relationship between Ireland and the Vatican, however justified Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s broadside. To do so is to misunderstand the purpose of diplomacy. If anything, he argues, it is “in times of difficulty in relations between two countries that . . . you need an embassy.”

And not least because of a range of policy challenges of mutual concern, ranging from State funding and denominational control of schools and hospitals to responses to sexual abuse, where church policy is likely to be driven from Rome. To be informed about and to influence the Vatican’s thinking is necessary, a reflection of the reality that diplomacy is about far more than protecting economic interests.

Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs Eamon Gilmore in the Seanad last week expressed some willingness to review the decision which had originally been proposed with closures of both the Iran mission and that in Timor Leste as part of Department of Foreign Affairs cost-cutting measures inherited by the Minister. The post of ambassador to the Vatican is being filled from Dublin by the department’s secretary general, David Cooney.

One of the issues that would simplify the Minister’s dilemma would be a review by the Vatican of its current insistence that embassies accredited to it cannot share premises or ambassadors with embassies accredited to Italy. Mr Gilmore suggested that there were indications from the Vatican of some welcome new flexibility on the issue and that could make reconsideration possible. The Minister’s commitment to a review is welcome although it should not come at the expense of closing another embassy.

Meanwhile a phoney spat is being fought out over the invitation to Pope Benedict to visit Ireland for the Eucharistic Congress in June. The Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference has already extended its invitation, which is under consideration in Rome. But Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin has cautioned that a visit during the congress might be too early to contribute most effectively to the renewal under way in the Irish church. Should the Pope decide he wishes to attend, an official Government invitation will then be issued.