Vacating the Vatican


THERE IS little doubt the Cloyne report on clerical child sex abuse, highly charged exchanges between the Taoiseach and the Vatican concerning unwarranted interference in this State and the recall of the papal nuncio have all contributed to the closure of Ireland’s embassy to the Holy See. Difficult fiscal circumstances may have provided official justification for the decision but it overlaid a deep chill in relations between the Catholic Church and the Government.

A review of Ireland’s diplomatic missions has been under way for some years and the McCarthy report recommended that the number of embassies should be reduced from 75 to 55. Instead of embarking on such a radical cull, however, Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade Eamon Gilmore has announced the closure of missions to Iran, Timor Leste and the Holy See. Wearing his Trade Minister’s hat, he spoke of the need to develop trading links, noting that the Holy See, one of Ireland’s oldest missions, yielded no economic return whatsoever.

A diplomatic mission to the Holy See was among the first established by the State in 1929 and the recognition, information and contacts it brought were greatly valued. Times and public attitudes have changed, however, and the influence of the Catholic Church in Ireland has waned. Ireland has become a member of the European Union with trade links and diplomatic contacts spanning the globe. In recent years, recession and the terms of the EU/IMF bailout have required significant cutbacks in government spending. The balance and extent of those changes were indicated yesterday in the Government’s four-year fiscal plan and are likely to overshadow this decision.

The decision to close the embassy does not represent a formal sundering of contacts. The Government intends to maintain formal diplomatic links with the Holy See and to appoint as ambassador the secretary general of the Department of Foreign Affairs, who will operate from Dublin. A similar attitude was expressed in Rome where a spokesman noted that what was important was a continuation in diplomatic relations between Ireland and the Holy See. Such careful language that addresses the “big picture” represents something of a damage limitation exercise.

There is no escaping a decline in “crozier power” that is reflected by the Government’s decision. Cardinal Séan Brady gave voice to that aspect when he expressed “profound disappointment” over a development that, he said, showed little regard for the historic ties between the Irish people and the Holy See over many centuries. Others sought to link the closure with an assault by the Labour Party on the Catholic Church and its control of national schools.

Such “reds-under-the-bed” language has little relevance. It will continue to be in the national interest to maintain diplomatic contact and dialogue with the Catholic Church at an international level. Good relations should also be maintained with its representatives here because of their role in the education, healthcare and spiritual guidance of citizens.