Embassy closure has huge significance


ANALYSIS:Decision to close our Vatican Embassy represents a major “cooling” in the once close and intimate Dublin-Rome relations

THE DECISION to close the Irish Embassy to the Holy See clearly represents good housekeeping but, equally, it has huge historical and political significance.

At the end of a summer marked by unprecedented tensions between Ireland and the Vatican over the Cloyne report, the decision represents a significant “cooling” in the once close and intimate Dublin-Rome relations.

Asked last night if the Holy See considered itself “offended” by the Government’s decision, senior Vatican spokesman Fr Federico Lombardi declined to comment. Such decisions, he said, were a matter for the Government. While the Vatican spokesman went out of his way to acknowledge the economic considerations underpinning the Irish decision, the reality is this is a move that has serious political implications.

In practice, there are two types of Holy See ambassadors – those who have their own embassies in Rome and those who work out of the embassy in a neighbouring country such as France, Switzerland or Malta.

Senior Vatican diplomats point out that as far as the Holy See is concerned, the former are Serie A ambassadors, while the latter are most distinctly Serie B. Put simply, if you want to show some proper respect and courtesy to the Holy See, then you had better maintain a separate embassy to the Vatican in Rome.

Ever since the 1929 concordat, the Vatican has mounted a zealous guard on the independence of its 100-acre, landlocked sovereign city-state enclave in the heart of Rome. First time Irish visitors, on discovering the Irish State runs (or ran) two diplomatic missions in the city – one to the Holy See and the other to the Italian state – often express surprise. Surely, they ask, a small country such as Ireland could make do with just one embassy which would handle relations with both the Vatican and Italy?

However, the point about the dual missions in Rome (and many other countries have two embassies here) is that they owe their existence to the Holy See’s desire to separate itself from the Italian state. It is the Holy See that refuses to accept an ambassador who is working out of the same building as the ambassador to Italy.

To some extent, the question goes back to first World War days when there was only one national embassy in Rome. When both Austria and Germany, then at war with Italy, withdrew their diplomatic representation, the Holy See found itself without German or Austrian interlocutors. In its finely tuned Jesuitical thinking, the Holy See objected to ambassadors being withdrawn because, while Italy might have been at war with Austria and Germany, the Holy See was not.

Countries which, whether through political choice or financial constraint, opt not to have a separate Vatican embassy usually end up “tagging on” Holy See responsibilities to their ambassador in a neighbouring country. The Holy See takes a dim view of this practice and the ambassador in question is very much a second-class citizen on the Vatican diplomatic circuit.

All of this was something the post-war Irish ambassador to the Holy See, Joseph Walshe, understood all too clearly. He inherited an embassy close to the central railway station where lorries, trams and trolley buses trundled by on a 24-hour basis. Mr Walshe in 1946 reported to Dublin that Ireland should upgrade its quarters, quoting the opinion of then US special representative, Myron Taylor, who said: “Ireland has a very special position in the Catholic world and in Rome and should have an Embassy worthy of Ireland.”

Given the green light, Mr Walshe came up with the goods in the shape of the splendid, 17th-century Villa Spada on the Gianicolo hill overlooking Rome. It has played its part in some intriguing chapters in Italian history, given that Garibaldi had used it briefly as his headquarters in 1849 while in more recent years it was home to the Agnelli (Fiat) family during the second World War.

Bought for $150,000 in 1946, Villa Spada is now worth millions. It functions not just as the residence of the Irish Ambassador to the Holy See but also houses the mission’s offices.

Logic decrees the Embassy to the Italian state would move into Villa Spada, thus saving on the heavy rent paid for the premises rented for that embassy. This move was confirmed last night, along with a decision to have the secretary general at the Department of Foreign Affairs act as Ambassador to the Vatican, servicing it from Dublin.

Other European countries, including Sweden and Estonia, have their ambassadors to the Vatican based in their national capitals.

In answer to a parliamentary question in 2009, minister for foreign affairs Micheál Martin reported that the two Embassies in 2008 had cost €2.4 million (Italian state) and €800,000 (Holy See). The much greater expenses incurred by the State Embassy are explained by the rent, while Villa Spada’s expenses are limited to personnel and upkeep.

This cost cutting measure, however, comes at a price. Not only does it highlight a cooling in relations with the Holy See but it also means Ireland is cutting itself off from one of the modern world’s best “listening posts”, given that the Vatican has an unparalleled and extensive worldwide network of contacts, intelligence and information.

In the current economic climate, however, the Government clearly feels that this is a regrettable, but acceptable sacrifice.