Kenny's speech historic and unprecedented in publicly calling Holy See to book

Enda Kenny broke new ground in his message to the papacy but Irish-Vatican relations have been far from trouble-free, writes …

Enda Kenny broke new ground in his message to the papacy but Irish-Vatican relations have been far from trouble-free, writes DERMOT KEOGH

HISTORIANS ARE professionally reluctant to use words and phrases like “unprecedented”, “turning point”, “watershed” etc to describe in the instant speeches or events which may appear very different when there is disclosure of all the sources. Distance and time need to elapse before the full import of a speech or event may properly be evaluated.

But, by all the rules of the historical profession, Taoiseach Enda Kenny did break new ground on Wednesday, letting it be known that there was only one Government in the Irish Republic and that there was only one law – the law of the State. Without putting a tooth in it, he spoke about the attempts by the Holy See to impede the workings of the State.

The language, reminiscent of the most difficult days in Anglo-Irish relations, carried the stricture to the Holy See to get its house in order and a warning to the Irish church that the era of crozier power was a thing of the past “where the swish of a soutane smothered conscience and humanity and the swing of a thurible ruled the Irish-Catholic world”.


Hyperbole perhaps, but his message was unambiguous to those who had ears to hear.

In the first instance, the Taoiseach in his speech – all the more forceful because it was so unexpected – has reversed the balance of diplomatic advantage in Ireland’s favour, turning the tables on the Holy See which has woken up to find the Kenny speech being reported internationally, and in many countries which have faced similar problems as Ireland with clerical child sexual abuse.

The Taoiseach had crystallised the concerns of many leaders in other countries. The Holy See had questions to answer and those answers needed to be given expeditiously. When the archives are opened, they are likely to show the exasperation of Irish governments with the Holy See over the question of clerical abuse.

This, it must be stressed, is not a diplomatic squabble. At the very core of this conflict, is the protection of children from sexual abuse. Temporising on such a grave matter, has fuelled the justifiable anger of the Taoiseach.

The Kenny speech, by tone and content, showed that the Government, had had enough of the famous Vatican diplomatic two-step – “thinking in centuries” is a phrase often used in that regard. The onus is now on the Holy See to respond in a timely fashion to the questions put to them by the Government.

From the perspective of statecraft, the Taoiseach and Minister for Foreign Affairs Eamonn Gilmore showed by their combined actions that they no longer had the patience to await an answer. The Government was not satisfied with the recent statements from the Vatican spokesman, Fr Federico Lombardi.

Answers had to come at an official level and soon. The strategy put the Holy See on the back foot. The Government internationalised a situation which had been handled, it would appear, at glacial speed by the Holy See.

The Kenny speech was unprecedented in the manner by which it confronted the Holy See directly, and publicly called the papacy to book. But in a sense, the Taoiseach articulated ideas which had been stated by Dr Garret FitzGerald since the 1960s, and as minister for foreign affairs between 1973 and 1977 and as taoiseach between 1982 and 1987.

In September 1985, the minister for foreign affairs, Peter Barry, told the cardinal secretary of state, Casaroli, at a luncheon in Iveagh House that the alliance between church and state in Ireland had been damaging to both parties. He spoke of the right of the bishops to put forward their position on all matters and of the right of the State to legislate what it determined was for the common good.

The Kenny speech is a return to the principles set out by Barry on that occasion. (There is intellectual continuity, consistency and overlap between the two speeches delivered 27 years apart as if the same hand were involved in both.) Successive Irish governments have consistently embraced those principles but have applied them in a most inconsistent manner.

Irish-Holy See relations have been far from trouble-free. The Liam Cosgrave government between 1973 and 1977 had a struggle with Rome over the actions of the then serving papal nuncio, Gaetano Alibrandi, in relation to Northern Ireland.

He told me that Cosgrave had written a letter to the Holy See which was the nearest thing to a declaration of war he had read. When it came back from the taoiseach’s office to the Department of Foreign Affairs, Dr FitzGerald instructed: “Don’t change a line,” and so it was sent. At one point, Dr FitzGerald told me that he had asked to have the same nuncio withdrawn but could not get the agreement of Cosgrave to bring it forward to cabinet.

Cosgrave’s father, William T Cosgrave, was head of government during the Civil War in 1923 when he formally and trenchantly requested the Holy See to order home its peace envoy, monsignor Luzio, from blundering around Ireland. Then minister for foreign affairs Desmond FitzGerald was dispatched to the Holy See to represent the government’s point of view and to let it be know what it thought of the monsignor. Luzio, when he returned to Rome, is reported to have said that he had come to Ireland to meet the 26 bishops and found, instead, 26 popes.

Indeed, the very idea of the opening of Irish diplomatic relations with the Holy See from the War of Independence to the late 1920s was not viewed in a very positive light, particularly by most Irish bishops, who felt that the nuncio would be usurping their respective roles.

The view in Fianna Fáil, during the debate on the opening of relations in 1929, was that the government had failed to consult the bishops about the intended exchange of envoys. Privately, Éamon de Valera – together with many senior clergy – believed at the time that the Vatican was pro-British. They, therefore, opposed the setting up of diplomatic relations with the Holy See.

But the worst fears of Fianna Fáil were not realised and de Valera came to feel at home with a succession of nuncios. The arrival of the first papal nuncio, Paschal Robinson, in January 1930, was an occasion of national celebration. He proved to be a popular choice with church and State. Ireland and the Holy See have enjoyed unbroken diplomatic relations since 1929.

My research in archives continues to reconfirm my view that a good ambassador remains a country’s strongest asset at a time of crisis and inter-state tension. This was the case during the second World War and during the Cold War. At this critical juncture, when the Kenny diplomatic strategy has wrong-footed the Holy See, it is certainly not the time to contemplate rupturing relations with Rome. Implicit in the Kenny diplomatic strategy is a need to continue to have an ambassador of the highest quality resident at the Holy See, ready to press the Irish case and to mobilise international support among the countries represented at the Holy See for the Irish position. How grave would the current situation be if Ireland had not been represented so expertly and professionally at the Holy See over the past few decades?

Another question for the historians of another generation will be to assess the calibre of the nuncios sent to Ireland and the quality of the Holy See’s grasp of Irish politics and church-State relations from the late 1960s onwards. My hypothesis is that the calibre was sometimes very poor.

The Irish diplomat, Joseph Walshe, took up his position in 1946 of ambassador (the first to hold that rank in the Irish diplomatic service) to the Holy See. The future Paul VI, Giovanni Battista Montini, told him that “you are the most Catholic country in the world”. Walshe believed that Ireland’s relationship with Rome was of “a very special character”.

While those views would not characterise Ireland’s relationship with the Holy See in 2011, the gravity of the present situation requires careful management in Rome and co-ordination by Irish ambassadors in other related posts. The diplomatic relationship between Ireland and the Holy See continues to have high value notwithstanding the current difficulties.

Walshe, facing difficulties at the Holy See in 1929 where he was sent to try to expedite the sending of a nuncio to Ireland, wrote in exasperation to his superiors in Dublin: “Forse, ‘perhaps’, is the most frequently used word in the Vatican vocabulary. I think we should not allow ourselves to be in the least degree discouraged by its frequent use in regard to matters of serious importance to us. On the contrary, we should draw the conclusion that our interests have been disgracefully neglected at this most vital world centre.”

Hopefully, in 2029, on the centenary of the writing of the above passage, the unbroken diplomatic relationship between Ireland and the Holy See will be reviewed in a calm and scholarly way.

Dermot Keogh is professor emeritus of history, University College Cork and author of Ireland and the Vatican: The Politics and Diplomacy of Church and State, 1922-1960, a new edition of which will be published next year