Ireland’s decision to reopen its embassy to the Vatican has been met with almost universal acclaim. The presenter of the popular evening current-affairs program “Drivetime” summed up the mood when she announced that she couldn’t remember a time when the newsroom received so many statements from politicians and others welcoming a government decision.
The broad welcome stems in part from Ireland’s historic relationship with Catholicism, and the Holy See in particular. It is also clear that when the government decided to close the Irish Embassy to the Vatican just over two years ago, it substantially underestimated the level of annoyance and public anger that would greet the move.
A political U-turn?
Government spokespersons have been at pains to point out that the swift reopening is not a political U-turn. It’s hard to see it in any other light. When closure was announced, Minister for Foreign Affairs Eamon Gilmore claimed that Ireland could no longer afford an embassy to the Vatican. So what has changed? Has the economic crisis that has gripped Ireland since 2008 abated? Hardly. The government is still in the midst of a punishing policy of austerity.
Further weight has been added to the belief that the re-opening is a U-turn by the confusion of government spokespersons. Gilmore, despite a long-held insistence that the embassy was closed merely for economic reasons, said it was being reopened now to engage with the leadership of Pope Francis on human rights and the eradication of poverty. Apparently unaware of the Holy See’s long-standing leadership in trying to make the world a fairer place, Gilmore stood in stark contrast with his government colleague Paschal Donohoe, who insisted the reopening was because government finances have improved.
Few people took the 2011 announcement of the embassy’s closure at face value. It came just months after Prime Minister Enda Kenny, in a blistering attack, accused the Vatican of trying to thwart investigations into the handling of clerical abuse allegations in Ireland. Kenny’s speech, despite playing loose with the facts and misquoting Pope Benedict XVI out of context at the time, won widespread praise among many Irish Catholics bruised by a series of revelations of the hierarchy’s failures to protect children. Kenny touched a nerve. Fast-forward a few months and Gilmore, evidently, calculated that there would be little public anger at a decision to close the Vatican Embassy.
It was a spectacular miscalculation. What ensued was a political storm as more than half of the members in the Oireachtas, or Irish parliament — including many government legislators — attended a meeting called to voice criticism of the move. Few media commentators bought the economic line and some even accused Gilmore of overt anti-Catholicism.
A new lay initiative — known as Ireland Stand Up — emerged, and a letter-writing and political-lobbying campaign ensured that the minister would find it hard to shake the controversy. Opposition politicians didn’t allow the matter to drop either; hardly a week went by in parliament without a question being tabled for Gilmore urging the reversal of the decision. The leader of the opposition, Micheál Martin, a former foreign minister, accused the government of acting in a shortsighted fashion.
The Holy See was one of the first states that Ireland established full diplomatic relations with in 1929, just seven years after winning independence from Britain. However, the diplomatic links go back much farther. When the first ambassador Joseph Walshe was presenting his credentials to Pope Pius XI in 1929, he spoke of “re-establishing” the relationship. He was referring to Cardinal Giovanni Battista Rinuccini, first papal nuncio to Ireland, sent by Pope Innocent X in 1645 to help the Irish Confederate Catholics in their war against English Protestant rule.
The Holy See’s role
Senior officials in the Department of Foreign Affairs, speaking on condition of anonymity, concede that the government — including Prime Minister Kenny — was surprised by the international reaction to the closure, particularly from many European Union governments. While Ireland sought to portray the Vatican as less-and-less important on the international stage, other countries like Russia and Britain were increasing their diplomatic presence at the Holy See. Gilmore’s contention that a lack of a trading relationship led to the closure also looked foolish given that no country trades with the Vatican.
A recently published memoir by Tim Fischer, who was Australia’s Vatican ambassador at the time the closure was announced, gives an insight into the international reaction.
“Suddenly they [the Holy See] were confronted with the most Catholic of countries, which owed much to the support of the Holy See over the decades, severely downgrading its diplomatic links and effectively pulling out of the Vatican,” he wrote. “How could this crisis have been reached?”
Fischer singled out the Church’s “significant role” in generating support for the Northern Ireland peace process, especially in Irish-American circles.
“While it will never be officially acknowledged, part of the success of this conduit lay with the Irish Embassy to the Holy See,” he wrote. “At a time when absolute peace in Northern Ireland is still to be achieved, is it a wise step to limit the channel of extra contact that adds to the peace glue?”
“Is it wise to underestimate the influence the Vatican exerts in difficult political situations such as this?” Fischer added.
The Francis factor
The election of Pope Francis last March proved to be the opportunity the government needed to begin the process of reopening. The media warmth to the Argentine pontiff allows the government to link the change in policy to the “Francis effect.”
It’s no coincidence that the government said the reopened embassy will “enable Ireland to engage directly with the leadership of Pope Francis on the issues of poverty eradication, hunger and human rights.” Nor was it by accident that Irish President Michael D. Higgins used a speech a day earlier to single out the pope for his leadership in the international arena.
Irish diplomats have always sought to punch above their weight when it comes to overseas development and diplomatic influence. The central role played by the Vatican in seeking a peaceful solution to the crisis in Syria and other troubled parts of the world further highlighted the exclusion caused by the diplomatic downgrade.
Vladimir Putin was in Rome in recent weeks to confer with the pope, while the White House recently announced that President Barack Obama would pay a visit to the Vatican in March. Some people will be disappointed that the reopened embassy will be “scaled back” — according to the statement by the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs — and details have yet to emerge about what exactly this will mean, but Church leaders are seeing it as the beginning of a fresh engagement that can be built upon.
Michael Kelly writes from Ireland.