Closure a step too far

There’s quiet diplomacy and megaphone diplomacy.

When Enda Kenny stood up in the Dáil in July and issued a blistering denunciation of the Vatican and its handling of clerical child sexual abuse, he was most certainly engaging in the latter.

Sean Donlon, who as a former secretary general of the Department of Foreign Affairs was once Ireland’s most senior diplomat, believes it was the “absolutely correct” thing for the Taoiseach to do, given the historical lack of co-operation from the Holy See on the issue.

What Mr Donlon does not agree with is tánaiste Eamon Gilmore’s subsequent decision, approved by Cabinet, to close the Irish embassy to the Vatican.

Mr Gilmore argued it was a cost-saving measure, and had nothing to do with the fallout from Cloyne. “While the embassy to the Holy See is one of Ireland’s oldest missions, it yields no economic return,” he said.

Mr Donlon is not buying that, saying the embassy was never about money. “There was almost no economic function — we didn’t trade in buying and selling indulgences,” he quips.

“It was never intended that the embassy to the Holy See would deliver economic returns, no more than, for example, we have two embassies to the United Nations — one in New York, one in Geneva — and they don’t make any direct contribution to Ireland’s economic interests.

“They’re there to promote Ireland’s political interests or human rights interests. Not every mission has a specifically economic function.”

Rather than swallow the line about cost savings, Mr Donlon instead recognises the “consistency of approach” behind both the speech and the embassy closure. He sees a direct line from one to the other.

Nonetheless, he thinks the closure a step too far, believing that when relations between two states are at a low ebb, communications should increase.

He points to what happened after Bloody Sunday on Jan 30, 1972. The following day, Jack Lynch and his cabinet recalled Ireland’s ambassador to London, Dr Donal O’Sullivan. The London embassy remained open, and avenues of communication were maintained. Dr O’Sullivan was sent back to London on Mar 24, the point made.

“In times of difficulty in relations between two countries, that’s when you need an embassy,” Mr Donlon says. “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.”

Embassies do not just provide consular assistance to citizens. Presence on the ground in key states is crucial when it comes to successfully representing Ireland’s political, economic and cultural interests, he says. “If you’re on the spot, essentially what you can do as compared to when you’re not on the spot is, you can monitor and assess in detail what’s happening on all these fronts, and if necessary, you can influence policy before it’s formed.”

He points to the Obama administration’s desire to ensure US multinationals repatriate more profits from overseas. “There’s no point in waiting until Congress and the administration has agreed on a tax policy about repatriating profits from multinationals. You’ve got to follow it as closely as the politicians and the civil servants who are formulating the policy, and who are influencing the policy.”

It’s precisely the same in the case of the Vatican, he argues. “If you step back and look at the structure, a bishop is appointed by Rome and he is directly responsible to Rome.

“The national hierarchy has no function other than the bishops meet to have chats about policy. But, for example, John A Buckley in Cork doesn’t report to Dermot Clifford in Cashel, even though one is a bishop and the other is an archbishop, and none of them report to Cardinal Brady in Armagh; they all report directly into Rome.

“So if you’re trying to influence policy — for example, take the one Ruairi Quinn is currently working on, which is clerical patronage in primary schools — the policy on that effectively will be formulated in the relative congregation in the Vatican, and they will send the policy to the individual bishops who will then negotiate with Ruairi Quinn.

“So it is in my view pretty important to have a set of eyes and ears on the ground in the Holy See so that you can watch the development of policy, so that you can see what the influences on policy are, and in particular, so that you can basically represent the Irish interest in the formulation of that policy.”

Mr Donlon himself could have ended up as a Vatican diplomat rather than an Irish one if things turned out differently. He studied for the priesthood in May-nooth and was in the same class as the aforementioned Bishop of Cork and Ross, John Buckley, but left after a year for UCD before proceeding to the civil service.

To whose who might view his faith as the motivation for criticising the embassy closure, Mr Donlon says: “In all my writing and what advice I give, I’m a bit like the barrister — I give it from the perspective of a professional foreign policy adviser; I don’t give it as a member of the Catholic Church.”

That is evident not alone from his support of the Cloyne speech, but when he discusses issues Ireland and the Vatican will have to tease out in the months and years ahead. He is clearly speaking as the former diplomat keen to see the State’s best interests served.

“We have several issues for negotiation with the Holy See,” he says. “First of all, their attitude on child sex abuse — we need to make sure that they come into line with Irish Government policy.

“Secondly, (there is) the education front where, as I say, Ruairi Quinn is trying to reconfigure the structure of the Irish educational system to recognise that the role of the Catholic Church inevitably is going to be different now compared to what it was 50 years ago.

“Thirdly... the issue of control of the ethos of hospitals by religious orders. Again, one has to question, in a country where the practice of Catholicism has diminished as it has over the last generation, is it appropriate that so many of our publicly funded hospitals should operate on the basis of a Catholic ethos?”

Finally, there is the Vatican’s potential restructuring of Irish dioceses. “Now that’s entirely a matter obviously for the Holy See, but there are potential implicat-ions for the State, and there is a long history particularly of ensuring that Armagh remains the primal seat in Ireland.

“We’ve had occasions in the past where people in the Holy See felt that, ‘Armagh is part of the United Kingdom. Therefore, we should recognise Dublin as being the primate of All Ireland.’ We had to fight that one back in the ’70s and ’80s. So that could happen again on this occasion — I’m not saying that it will happen, but I’m saying that it’s the sort of thing that has to be watched because there are political implications.

“We would not as a State — and I’m not speaking as a Catholic, I’m simply talking as someone who’s interested in the integrity of the State and the ambition in the Constitution towards an All-Ireland situation — want at this stage to have a Northern Ireland Catholic Church diocese becoming part of the UK.”

Of course, relations between the Vatican and Ireland have not been broken off — the secretary general of the Department of Foreign Affairs, David Cooney, will service the Holy See from Dublin as a “non-resident ambassador”.

Mr Cooney previously worked as secretary in the Vatican embassy as a young diplomat. But already, Mr Donlon suspects, the Vatican has delivered a “minor snub” to the Government by not yet affording Mr Cooney a chance to present his credentials.

Mr Gilmore was questioned about this at an Oireachtas committee in December, and acknowledged that non-resident ambassadors from other countries were being given their chance to present their credentials at a ceremony in the Holy See later that same month.

“We had notified the Holy See of our nominee, but it is not intended that he will present himself (at that ceremony). That is not our choice. That decision was made in the Vatican. We are ready for the new ambassador to hand in his credentials whenever that can be accommodated by the Vatican,” Mr Gilmore said.

Mr Donlon knows what it’s like to be in this position. “When I went to Washington (as ambassador to the US) in ’78, there was a three- or four-week delay before I could present my credentials to President Carter. During those three or four weeks, basically I couldn’t attend any public function nor could I participate in any of the normal meetings. I couldn’t go to the State Department to lobby about something. So I think it is probably a minor snub (by the Vatican).”

The department, for its part, insisted last night there had been “no delay” and that Mr Cooney would present his credentials in May.

One thing the Government should consider in all this, says Mr Donlon, is defining its future relationship with the Vatican by way of a concordat, or formal agreement, that deals with matters concerning both State and Church.

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