U-turn on embassy is embarrassing for Mr Gilmore but let's not be churlish about it
Published 22/01/2014 | 02:30
Despite the spin, the Government's decision to re-open an embassy at the Vatican is a U-turn and an embarrassing climb-down for the leader of the Labour Party, Eamon Gilmore. Nonetheless, it would be wrong for critics of the closure to be churlish about the reversal.
When the Tanaiste announced in November 2011 that he was closing the diplomatic mission to the Holy See, 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 Dail speech in which he attacked the Vatican. It was a move that Mr Gilmore's political advisers evidently thought would be met with widespread approval. It was a miscalculation: what ensued was a political storm as 83 TDs and Senators - including some from Labour - attended a meeting called to voice criticism of the move.
While there was widespread public support for the Taoiseach's criticism of the Vatican's failure to pressure Irish bishops to handle abuse, Mr Gilmore's move to close the embassy seemed like a petty addendum.
The Tanaiste has found it hard to shake the controversy and opposition politicians didn't allow the matter to drop.
Hardly a week went by in the Dail without Mr Gilmore facing a parliamentary question on the issue. But why the U-turn?
Is the Government thinking of appeasing faith-based voters ahead of the European and local elections? Not likely: voters annoyed at the abortion legislation won't be mollified by the re-opening of an embassy on the Janiculum Hill. Instead, yesterday'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 Tanaiste to change his mind.
Senior people in the department concede that the Government - including Taoiseach Enda Kenny - was surprised by the international reaction to the closure, including from many European Union governments. While Ireland sought to portray the Vatican as less-and-less important on the international stage, other countries such as Russia and Britain were increasing their diplomatic presence at the Holy See. Mr Gilmore's contention that a lack of a trading relationship led to the closure also looked foolish, given that no country trades with the Vatican.
The Government's position was also in stark contrast with the outward-looking diplomatic approach of Papal Nuncio Archbishop Charles Brown. Since his appointment in 2011, the personable Irish-American, in addition to his role 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.
Some diplomats had quietly speculated that the Tanaiste would re-open an embassy to the Vatican in late 2013 after Ireland finished up a six-month term with the rotating EU presidency. This, they said, would allow him to link the re-opening to a 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. The new 'mood music' coming from the Argentine Pontiff allows the Government to link the U-turn to the 'Francis effect'. It's no coincidence that the Tanaiste's statement this week said the embassy would "enable Ireland to engage directly with the leadership of Pope Francis on the issues of poverty eradication, hunger and human rights".
Nor was it by accident that President Michael D Higgins used a speech on Monday to single out Pope Francis for his leadership in the international arena. Given the President's public praise, it seemed almost incredible that Ireland would remain isolated from the Vatican's diplomatic circuit.
Irish diplomats have always sought to punch above their 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.
Of course, none of this is new to those critics of the 2011 decision who pointed out that the closure would isolate Ireland from a vital international 'staging post' given Ireland's historic importance in global Catholicism.
Some people will be disappointed that the re-opened embassy will be scaled back but it is the beginning of a fresh engagement that can be built upon. Ireland has rarely had a healthy relationship with the Vatican, in the past tending to be overly-deferential or, in recent times, too confrontational.
This can be the beginning of a new matured relationship built on mutual respect and a renewed sense of the importance of the Holy See in the international arena rather than merely following a tradition.
MICHAEL KELLY IS EDITOR OF 'THE IRISH CATHOLIC' NEWSPAPER.