THE Government has been plunged into its first crisis after Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore yesterday categorically rejected Fine Gael calls to reverse the decision to close the Irish embassy to the Vatican.
The astonishing row over the Vatican embassy comes on the heels of a series of spats between the coalition over cuts in the Budget, which have led to a significant deterioration of relations between FG and Labour in recent weeks.
Speaking exclusively to this newspaper, the Labour leader has delivered an unequivocal rejection to his coalition partners, saying "no, the decision will not be reversed. It was a government decision".
"I have set out the position as to why it was necessary to do so. It was one of three embassies we closed. Like everyone else, the Department of Foreign Affairs had to cut its cloth to measure."
Mr Gilmore's rejection of the demands from within Fine Gael puts him at odds with reported commitments from Taoiseach Enda Kenny to review the embassy closure. Junior FG minister Lucinda Creighton yesterday said the embassy could be re-opened within two years.
Discontent about the Vatican embassy closure led to a series of dramatic, and sometimes farcical, clashes at a Fine Gael parliamentary party meeting last week. During the meeting, over half the TDs called for the re-opening of the embassy.
One of the most surreal moments saw TD Peter Mathews brandish a set of rosary beads at the "secularist members of the party". The meeting became so heated that senior ministers Michael Noonan and James Reilly had to intervene to calm the mood.
Mr Noonan stressed "Enda's credentials as a sound Catholic" and at one point claimed that "he is a better Catholic than myself".
Fine Gael figures were united in the demand that the Vatican embassy would be re-opened and soon.
The clash of ideologies between the parties has intensified since Budget day, and with such strong division lines being drawn between the parties on "non-critical" issues like the Vatican embassy, several senior ministers have now begun to question the ability of the Government to last the full term.
Yesterday a senior Fine Gael figure told the Sunday Independent: "I can see us getting one more Budget through, but I can't see us getting a third one through such is the feuding and in-fighting going on at the moment."
Speaking yesterday, Mr Gilmore as Foreign Minister in the eye of the storm made it clear that despite the Fine Gael calls, the decision to close the Vatican embassy is final.
"We have appointed a secretary-general in my department as ambassador as a non-resident. He will service it from Dublin. The decision to close the embassy and not to have an ambassador in residence is not going to be reversed," he added.
And Mr Gilmore is not alone in his opposition to such a review. Labour Public Expenditure Minister Brendan Howlin has this weekend also ruled out any reversal of the decision.
Mr Gilmore denied that the decision to close the embassy was related to his Government's criticism -- a criticism led by Taoiseach Enda Kenny -- of the Vatican's role in the Cloyne Report into child sexual abuse or that it was part of any "anti-Catholic" agenda within his own party.
He also said that if the Vatican relaxed its rules to allow countries to use their embassies to Italy to also facilitate their relations with the Holy See, then the matter could be re-examined.
"The other issue that comes into play here is the refusal of the Vatican to allow countries to use their embassy to Italy as their embassy to the Vatican. So we have had to maintain two residences, two staffs. If the Vatican relaxes its view on that then we can relook at the arrangements then."
In an interview with the Sunday Independent, Mr Howlin also rejected any suggestion of reversing the decision to close the embassy. "It was a government decision, taken by all of Government in the context of the Budget, so it doesn't arise."
The closure of the Vatican embassy, cuts to small rural schools and cuts to various welfare benefits are the central issues in the war between the two coalition partners.
At the heated Fine Gael meeting on Wednesday, Mr Kenny reassured Fine Gael backbenchers that the decision to close down Ireland's Vatican embassy would be reviewed.
Mr Kenny told the meeting of his personal good relations with the Catholic Church.
"The real threat to the Government is that rows between the alternative sets of back-benchers will spark a political crisis that can only be resolved by an election," one minister said of the dispute.
Dublin Labour TD Aodhan O Riordain yesterday apologised for his apparent support of a proposal that senior public servants be screened to ensure they do not show "inappropriate deference to the Catholic Church".
He claimed the proposal came from within his constituency organisation and he did not read it before submitting it for inclusion at the party's upcoming conference. His apparent support for such a proposal drew the ire of party colleagues.