VATICAN CITY — The Vatican has given a measured response to Ireland’s decision to close its embassy to the Holy See, saying it is free to do so based on what a state believes is practically possible.
The Irish government will maintain diplomatic relations with the Holy See but says it has decided to close the mission – one of the country’s oldest – as part of a cost-cutting programme prompted by the country’s budget cuts imposed by the European Union and International Monetary Fund. It has also decided to shutter its embassies in Iran and East Timor.
In a statement issued Nov. 4, Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said: “Naturally, every state that has diplomatic relations with the Holy See is free to decide, on the basis of its possibilities and its interests, whether to have an ambassador to the Holy See who is resident in Rome or resident in another country.
“What is important is the diplomatic relations between the Holy See and the states, and these are not in question with regard to Ireland.”
A number of states have diplomatic missions to the Holy See with non-resident ambassadors. However, Ireland’s embassy is one of its oldest, symbolizing strong historic ties to the Church. The Holy See was also the first state to recognize Ireland as an independent nation.
This has led some observers to view current poor relations between the Irish government and the Vatican, which have extensively deteriorated over the Church’s handling of sex-abuse cases, as a probable underlying cause.
But Eamon Gilmore, Ireland’s minister for foreign affairs, denied the embassy closure was linked. “That was not a consideration,” Gilmore told state broadcaster RTE on Nov. 4. “Our diplomatic relations with the Vatican will continue, and they are valued.”
Ireland has been without a representative to the Holy See since July, when Ambassador Noel Fahey retired. Since then, it has been run by just one diplomat, charge d’affaires Helena Keleher.
In July, the Vatican recalled its apostolic nuncio to Ireland, Archbishop Giuseppe Leanza, after Prime Minister Enda Kenny issued strong accusations against the Holy See for obstructing investigations into sexual abuse by priests. The charges have been strenuously denied by the Vatican, which describes them as “unsubstantiated.”
Gilmore said the Irish embassy to the Holy See yielded no economic return, but added he did not expect the Vatican now to close its mission in Dublin.
“The fact that we have chosen to close our mission in the Vatican and to have it serviced from Dublin doesn’t necessarily mean that we won’t have a Papal Nuncio here,” he said. Ireland has already nominated a new ambassador to reside in the Irish capital.
Ireland’s decision comes at a time when England, a historically anti-Catholic country, is bolstering its relationship with the Holy See. It also follows significant diplomatic achievements during Benedict XVI’s pontificate: In 2006 the Holy See forged formal diplomatic relations with newly independent Montenegro, in 2007 with the United Arab Emirates, and in 2008 with Botswana. Finally, in December 2010, the Russian Federation, which had relations of a special nature with the Holy See (as does the Palestinian Liberation Organization), upgraded bilateral ties to full diplomatic relations.
Insiders are not convinced of Ireland’s official reasons for the decision, and see it as a populist move (Kenny’s speech against the Vatican was well received by the general population). Others are criticizing a small posse of anti-Catholic ministers rather than Prime Minister Kenny himself.
Cardinal Sean Brady, primate of All Ireland, said the move will “disappoint many.”
“I wish to express my profound disappointment at this decision, and I know that many others will share this disappointment,” he said. “This decision seems to show little regard for the important role played by the Holy See in international relations and of the historic ties between the Irish people and the Holy See over many centuries.”
The cardinal added that he hoped the decision would later be reconsidered.
“I look forward to a time when the government will again appoint a resident ambassador to the Holy See,” he continued. “I hope that today’s decision will be revisited as soon as possible and that it can be addressed at the next meeting of the Church-state structured dialogue.”
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome Correspondent.