Hard to analyse Vatican activity without an embassy


INSIDE POLITICS:Given the deep roots of Catholicism in Ireland, is it worth taking the risk of offending a large swathe of opinion, writes DEAGLAN de BREADUN

THERE ARE certain moments in political life when one feels that an entire era in our history has come to an end and a new one begun. The signing of the Belfast Agreement on Good Friday 1998 was one and the bailout agreement with the troika was another.

In a quiet, almost unobtrusive way another tipping-point was reached this week in Dublin. With little advance warning on the day, Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade Eamon Gilmore announced the closure of the Irish Embassy to the Vatican.

It was all done in a very matter-of-fact way. The Tánaiste arrived down the stairs at Government Buildings, took questions from the waiting media – who had already been issued with a statement – and then went away about his business.

There was little or no other activity in evidence at that time of the evening. A few civil servants emerged with their coats on, heading for home. Outside the gates, the usual traffic build-up was taking place on Merrion Street.

Yet one sensed that all had changed, changed utterly. Something that would have been unimaginable a few short years ago had taken place.

Ireland would no longer have an official Government presence at the Vatican. Sure, as Gilmore was at pains to stress, diplomatic relations would continue, but there would no longer be an embassy building or premises of any kind.

To anyone familiar with Catholic culture and history in Ireland, this was breathtaking stuff. It was the equivalent, on a smaller scale, of Britain closing down its embassy in the US, except that the special relationship between London and Washington had nothing on that which obtained between Ireland and Rome.

Our writers and sages will have to seek new themes in the future. Gone is the era when politicians lived in mortal fear of “a belt of the crozier”, displayed at its worst in the notorious saga of the mother and child scheme promoted by minister for health Noel Browne.

This week’s announcement was the political equivalent of the moment in Tom Murphy’s play, The Sanctuary Lamp, where one of the characters, plagued by a neurotic version of Catholicism, finds that he has forgotten the words of the Confiteor and declares in terms of great relief: “I’ve beaten them.”

And yet one cannot help wondering if the decision is a wise one. In the television series Yes, Minister, top civil servant Sir Humphrey would politely signal his utter disapproval of a particular initiative by telling his political master that it was “very brave”, ie foolhardy.

Traditionally, when cutbacks were sought in our foreign service, the mandarins would come back with a list that had the Vatican Embassy at the top. The Department of Finance and the government of the day would blanch and then back off rapidly. In that respect, this Government is more courageous, but it may also be “very brave”. They may come to regret the move.

There is a small, hardline Catholic element in the country that will, of course, be outraged by the decision. But it is possible that mainstream Catholic opinion will not regard it as the finest day’s work of our politicians either. It is not worth taking the risk of offending that broad swathe of opinion and perhaps driving some of it into the arms of the extremists. The church is going through a bad period in its history here, due to arrogance and negligence and failure to protect the innocence of children, but Catholicism has very deep roots in Ireland which politicians ignore at their peril.

Gilmore repeatedly insisted that the decision was taken on grounds of cost and had nothing to do with difficulties that have arisen between the Government and the Vatican, especially in relation to the Cloyne report on child sexual abuse. In a statement that will surely echo down the years, he said: “There are no economic reasons for having an embassy in the Vatican.”

He might have added: “ . . . and there never were.” The existence of the Vatican Embassy never had anything to do with economics or trade. The cynics would say it was about the relationship between Rome and one of its more enthusiastic satellites.

But it also symbolised the end of centuries of religious oppression in this country: in former times we had the Mass Rock, where the dispossessed huddled in the rain to express their faith, and then we had the dazzling and historic Villa Spada.

The website of the Department of Foreign Affairs writes of this stunning edifice: “It stands today as a symbol of Ireland’s long and fruitful relationship with the Holy See.”

That will not be case any more. The staff of the Embassy to Italy, currently in rented premises, are moving into the Villa Spada. The Vatican does not accept what Gilmore called “a joint servicing arrangement”, so diplomatic relations will henceforth be conducted from departmental headquarters in Dublin.

The Tánaiste estimates the decision, approved by the Government this week, will save “about €650,000-€700,000” which is less than the retirement package of €713,000 available to certain very senior civil servants, although it will of course be an annual saving.

The Vatican is an important diplomatic hub and spiritual power-centre. You do not have to subscribe to the fantasies of “The Da Vinci Code” to believe that the comings and goings there are worth monitoring. Nor does one have to like popes and prelates to appreciate that it is necessary to observe and analyse their activities at close quarters. They will certainly be keeping a close watch on us.

Stephen Collins is on leave

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