Closing Vatican embassy ‘was wrong decision’

The Government was wrong to close Ireland’s embassy to the Vatican, a former head of the Department of Foreign Affairs has said.

Sean Donlon, once this country’s most senior diplomat and a former ambassador to the US, said the current difficulties between Ireland and the Vatican made the embassy more, not less, important.

He pointed to the fact that Ireland had never closed its embassy to Britain during the Troubles, even after Bloody Sunday when relations between the two states reached a nadir.

“In times of difficulty in relations between two countries, that’s when you need an embassy. We had 20 or 25 very difficult years in dealing with the British but we didn’t ever close our embassy.

“For two months after Bloody Sunday, we withdrew our ambassador from London for consultations, but we kept full embassy staff, building, and normal activity. And we sent the ambassador back after two months.”

Mr Donlon, who was secretary general of the department when the Anglo-Irish Agreement was signed, said it was crucial to have a presence on the ground to monitor and influence the development of policy in key foreign states.

In that regard, he said there were a number of serious issues to be negotiated between Ireland and the Holy See, including:

* Ensuring the Vatican’s position on child sexual abuse is in line with Government policy;

* Education Minister Ruairi Quinn’s plan to diversify the patronage of primary schools;

* Whether state-funded hospitals should continue operating under a Catholic ethos;

* The potential restructuring of Irish dioceses.

Mr Donlon said the structure of the Vatican meant its policy on these issues would be formulated in Rome, not in Ireland.

“So it is in my view pretty important to have a set of eyes and ears on the ground in the Holy See.”

Eamon Gilmore, the tánaiste, announced the closure of the embassy in November, saying the current secretary general of his department, David Cooney, would service the Vatican from Dublin as a “non-resident” ambassador.

Mr Donlon said he suspected the Vatican had delivered a minor snub to the Government by not yet affording Mr Cooney the opportunity to present his credentials. “The relevance of that is in international diplomacy, you can’t be active in the country of your accreditation unless you have presented credentials. So I think it is probably a minor snub.”

However, in a statement last night, the department insisted there had been “no delay”.

“It is up to the receiving state to choose a date for the presentation of credentials when their calendar permits.”

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