Our man at the Vatican


A chara, – There has been some mention in your coverage of the embassy to the Vatican controversy of the value of the Holy See as a “listening post”.

In 1988 I was appointed the representative of the UN Human Rights Commission Western Group to visit Cuba on a six-person mission to report on the human rights situation in that country. The Western Group comprised Western Europe, US, Canada, Japan, New Zealand and Australia. I was grateful to our own foreign minister Gerry Collins TD for confirming that my status for this mission would be independent of the Irish government’s direction. The others, representing the other regions of the world, were in varying degrees disposed to taking direction from the government in Havana.

I took it as my mission to measure the situation on the ground against the standards set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and various UN Commission declarations.

Before embarking I visited the foreign ministries in Madrid, Bonn, London, Paris and Washington DC to try to learn from the respective experts as much as I could of the findings of their own embassies or third party representatives (eg Switzerland for the US) in Havana. I also visited the two “foreign ministries” in Rome, those of the Quirinale and the Vatican. I spoke also to the representatives in Geneva of the capitals I could not visit and to many others.

With one exception these sessions were a waste of time. In effect my interlocutors either officiously avoided committing their governments in any way and were uninformative or, as in the case of Madrid, were heavily propagandist in favour of the Cuban regime (reflecting the tendency of the then socialist government of Spain) or, as in the case of Washington DC, were propagandist on the other side.

The best sessions by far took place with Cardinals Casaroli and Silvestrini the two senior Vatican officials at that time. They had both perfectly understood the potential of and the limits on the role of the United Nations in its mission.

They were extraordinarily well-informed. They neither demonised nor in any sense minimised the grave problems that the regime in Havana presented to the church and its community in Cuba and the thrust of their briefing was positive in suggesting ways to explore practical and graduated improvements which might be made. They did not confine themselves to the direct interests of the Catholic Church but ranged over the whole field of human rights in its UN dimension. They did not direct me in my duty as an Irish Catholic (as curiously Fidel Castro, a theologian manque, tried strenuously to do in two private sessions I had with him during the mission). The depth of their knowledge of how the Cuban regime functioned and how the UN might be useful left all other foreign ministries looking either completely politicised or inadequate or frankly ignorant.

Before visiting the Vatican, where I also had the honour of a brief meeting with Pope John Paul II, I had the benefit of an outstanding pre-briefing at the eponymous Villa Spada from our very wise Ambassador Dillon and from a then senior official of the Holy See, one Diarmuid Martin. They both told me I would get a uniquely valuable briefing in the Vatican. They were right.

All of this was in the days before the fall of the Berlin Wall. The visiting mission produced a bland 100-page report, and a minority report (of 1,000 pages) which was more critical, from the undersigned.

I am sorry to say that we did not achieve much for the people of Cuba back then, but I believe and hope that there are better days ahead of them. – Is mise,


Dartmouth Square,

Dublin 6.

Sir, – Our country and our people are broken, people are losing their jobs, their homes and their children to foreign shores. Things will get worse.

In the midst of the carnage to our economy and society, John Waters (Opinion, February 17th) is having trouble coming to terms with the fact that, with the recent revelations that the church, to whom the populace used to flock, has been shown to be cruel, corrupt, above reproach and above accountability, the people of Ireland have become more progressive than at any time in their history in their new-found realisation regarding religion. They have seen the lie that it is and have decided, correctly, that God and religion are in fact mutually exclusive.

John Waters writes of the Labour Party stance regarding the Vatican embassy as “an opportunistic act of neurotic bigotry by militant atheists seeking to impose their myopic beliefs on the rest of us”. Isn’t that exactly what the plethora of Catholic-run institutions of this State have been doing since God-knows-when? Institutions that, inter alia, ensure that prepubescent children have to face the confessional, a real insidious piece of brainwashing, before they can join God’s club.

John Waters is obviously afraid of the smashing of a religious status quo. When Aodhán Ó Ríordáin compared him to something from the 1950s, he was incorrect. John Waters is more like something from the 1750s. – Yours, etc,



Co Wicklow.