Embassy re-opening is good news

Michael Kelly welcomes Government U-Turn

When Tánaiste and Foreign Minister Eamon Gilmore announced in November 2011 that he was closing Ireland’s Embassy to the Vatican he claimed it was a cost-saving measure. Few people took this at face value coming as it did just months after Enda Kenny’s Dáil speech in which he attacked the Vatican. It was a move that Mr Gilmore’s political advisers calculated would be met with widespread approval. What ensued was a political storm as 83 TDs and senators attended a meeting called to voice criticism of the move.


While Mr Gilmore may have calculated that the move would have won him praise for ‘standing up to the Church’ (something which may have required courage in the 1950s, but is now de rigueur), it has haunted him ever since. Hardly a week has gone by in the Dáil since the announcement when he has not been asked a question about re-opening the embassy. While there was undoubtedly public anger at the Church’s handling of abuse and the Vatican’s apparent slowness to act, for many people, the closure of the Embassy to the Vatican was a bridge too far.

This week’s announcement – a scaled-back, one-person embassy with a focus on international development – is the culmination of efforts by officials in the Department of Foreign Affairs to find a face-saving way for the Tánaiste to climb down.


It is understood that the Government – including Taoiseach Enda Kenny – was surprised by the international feedback they received about the decision, including from many governments with warm relations with the Vatican. 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.

The Irish Government’s position was also in stark contrast with the outward-looking diplomatic activities of Papal Nuncio Archbishop Charles Brown since his appointment in 2011. Archbishop Brown, in addition to his ministry within the Church, has worked quietly in the background with politicians of all hues and officials in Government departments to emphasise the importance of upgrading ties with the Vatican.


Some Irish diplomats have quietly speculated that the Tánaiste would re-open an embassy to the Vatican in late 2013 after Ireland finished up a six-month term with the rotating presidency of the European Union. This, they said, would allow for the redeployment of resources. However, it was the election of Pope Francis in March that proved to be the opportunity the Government seized to begin the process of re-opening a diplomatic mission to the Holy See. The new ‘mood music’ coming from the Argentine Pontiff allowed officials in the Department of Foreign Affairs to link the u-turn to Francis. It’s no coincidence that the Tánaiste's statement this week said the embassy will “enable Ireland to engage directly with the leadership of Pope Francis on the issues of poverty eradication, hunger and human rights”.

Ireland has always sought to punch above its 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 on the issue, while the White House announced this week that President Barack Obama would pay a visit in March.


The decision to re-open the embassy is the right one and it is to be welcomed. Praise is due to the many individuals and groups like Ireland Stand Up who led opposition to the move. The politicians who refused to let the issue die whether in their own party or in the Dáil can also take credit for the move as can the non-resident Ambassador to the Vatican David Cooney who has worked assiduously to lay the ground for this reaffirmation of the important relationship between Ireland and the Holy See.

Some people will be disappointed that the re-opened embassy will be “scaled-back” and details have yet to emerge about what exactly this will mean, but it is the beginning of a process that can be built upon. Ireland has rarely had a very healthy engagement with the Vatican tending to either err on the side of over-deference or being overly-confrontational. This can be the beginning of a new, matured relationship built on respect for the importance of the Holy See in the international arena rather than merely on tradition.