Brexit, the pandemic and Church/State relations were discussed as Ireland and the Vatican seek to deepen ties, writes Jason Osborne
Last Thursday saw the resumption of high-level ministerial interaction between Ireland and the Holy See after a fraught decade. Minister for European Affairs Thomas Byrne met with the Holy See’s Foreign Minister Archbishop Paul Gallagher to discuss a range of issues, from Brexit to the current Church/State relations.
Speaking to The Irish Catholic newspaper, Minister Byrne said he had a “good exchange” with the archbishop, which was an important one given the “tension in the relationship to do with well-known issues over the last 10 to 20 years”.
“I think Church-State relations and Irish-Vatican relations have changed dramatically in recent years, but at the end of the day, we have diplomatic relations, we have friendly relations,” Minister Byrne said.
“I think that we can work constructively where we agree on the many items that we do, migration and climate change, a whole range of issues that are very important to the Vatican, such as humanitarian assistance and peacekeeping.”
There will be “lots of areas” where the Irish Government and people will disagree with the Vatican, Minister Byrne said, the relationship one between “sovereign states,” and “no longer a relationship of religious subservience”, which he said is a “matter for the individual person”.
The Government recognises the usefulness of having good relations with the Vatican going forward though, he said, continuing that “which we have”.
The diplomatic channels were opened through discussions on Brexit, and while the Vatican didn’t set out a stance on it, Minister Byrne said Archbishop Gallagher received positively the case he made for multilateralism and bilateralism.
“I can’t say that the Vatican set out a stance on Brexit. What I would have done, and I think it was taken very positively, was, and I’m doing this everywhere I go really, is appealing to multilateralism and bilateralism, so asking the Vatican, asking Italy, asking France, asking everywhere we go, when they’re talking to Britain and when they’re making public statements on the issue, to emphasise the need for a bilateral and a multilateral approach when it comes to Northern Ireland.”
Unilateralism “only causes problems”, he said, “and certainly that was the case I would have made very, very strongly and I think was heard positively by Archbishop Gallagher”.
Referring to the flare in tensions the ongoing Brexit disputes have inspired in the North, Minister Byrne said the Vatican is concerned about it and that his appeal for a multilateral and bilateral approach was “favourably received”.
“I paid tribute as well to the role of the Catholic Church and other Churches in Northern Ireland in trying to calm tensions, in trying to bring people together in terms of the work they do for Christian unity, so there clearly is a role for the Church and the Churches in Northern Ireland,” he said.
Currently making a number of trips to European Colleagues, Minister Byrne said “Brexit is obviously very high up the agenda” during these meetings, and that he took the chance to bring it up with Archbishop Gallagher during his trip to Rome, whom he didn’t get to see while he was in Ireland last summer.
“It’s always worthwhile from the Irish Government’s point of view to explain our position on Brexit when we go abroad,” he said.
On the topic of the pandemic, Ireland and the Vatican found common ground in their emphasis on vaccine sharing, Minister Byrne said.
“I would have set out our position on what vaccine sharing will be taking place and obviously that’s something that’s of strong interest to the Vatican,” he said, continuing, “I also paid tribute to the role of Church volunteers in Ireland on a very local level in terms of complying with Covid rules and regulations.”
Minister Byrne credited the churches’ ability to stay open throughout the pandemic, “when they’re allowed to be open”, to the work of the volunteers, and the work done at the parochial level.
Asked whether Ireland’s ban on public worship during the pandemic, which saw churches in the Republic closed longer than anywhere else in Europe, was discussed during the meeting, Minister Byrne said that “specific issue wasn’t discussed”.
When it came to Church/State relations, Minister Byrne said the mother and baby homes were on the agenda, as well as “other concerns” people had, “particularly on the financial side”.
“To be fair to Archbishop Gallagher, [he] was well-apprised of the situation. Indeed there are other, similar situations now arising in other parts of the world, including in Canada,” Minister Byrne said.
“It was the first high-level ministerial interaction in quite a number of years, and I think it’s important. Clearly there’s been tension in the relationship to do with well-known issues over the last 10 to 20 years.
“And indeed the other tensions in the relationship as well when the previous government closed the embassy, which at the time I would have campaigned with other colleagues to reopen, and I am glad that we have a resident ambassador to the Holy See. I think it’s very important.”
The importance of maintaining diplomatic ties with the Vatican was evident to Minister Byrne, he said, “when we were discussing the issue of Syria and one thing the archbishop said to me which struck a chord with me was, ‘Our people on the ground are telling us…’, so it just spoke to me that the Holy See, the Vatican, the Church has people on the ground everywhere, who are able to see exactly what’s happening and I thought that was very useful…It just served to remind of the importance of diplomatic relations with the Vatican”.
Asked whether there were any “sticking points” during the meeting, Minister Byrne responded positively.
“There will always be sticking points in any relationship between two countries and, you know, we would have different emphasis on certain issues. But no, the meeting was positive.”