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Bending the knee: how Sean MacBride wooed the Vatican

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Sean MacBride: An IRA leader in the 1930s, he tried to find favour with the Catholic Church as Minister for External Affairs

Sean MacBride: An IRA leader in the 1930s, he tried to find favour with the Catholic Church as Minister for External Affairs

Disapproval: Maurice Moyhinan (centre) opposed the sending of a telegram by former Taoiseach John A Costello (right) to Pope Pius XII

Disapproval: Maurice Moyhinan (centre) opposed the sending of a telegram by former Taoiseach John A Costello (right) to Pope Pius XII

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Sean MacBride: An IRA leader in the 1930s, he tried to find favour with the Catholic Church as Minister for External Affairs

It is 2016. Imagine the newly-elected Irish government at its first Cabinet meeting being so consumed about how it is perceived by the Holy See, that it unanimously agrees that the Taoiseach send to the Pope the following:

"On the occasion of our assumption of office and our first Cabinet meeting, my colleagues and myself desire to repose at the feet of Your Holiness the assurance of our filial loyalty and devotion as well as of our firm resolve to be guided in all our work by the teaching of Christ and to strive for the attainment of a social order in Ireland based on Christian principles."

'Impossible,' you would say, and rightly so, as no sovereign, democratic Republic ought ever, in any circumstances, voluntarily 'repose at the feet' of another head of state. But the telegram, quoted above, was sent, on February 20, 1948, to Pope Pius XII by the then Taoiseach, John A Costello, on behalf of all the members of the new inter-party government.

The language used in the telegram belonged more to medieval or pre-Revolutionary Europe than to Ireland in the early years of the Cold War. The politician who initiated the sending of the telegram was the ex-revolutionary republican and former self-styled chief of staff of the IRA, Seán MacBride, the leader of Clann na Poblachta and the new Minister for External Affairs. MacBride was heavily influenced by the Irish Ambassador to the Holy See, Joseph Walshe.

The latter's rationale for the sending of the telegram was that such a profession of loyalty was required in order to eliminate the impact of the reportage in the Italian socialist press that the new Irish government had shifted to the Left. For Walshe, as he told Dublin in 1946: "Is not Italy the citadel? If Italy goes, Rome goes and what about the GHQ [Holy See]."

The then Secretary [General] in the Department of the Taoiseach, Maurice Moynihan, opposed the sending of the telegram because he believed it was not dignified for a sovereign state to 'repose at the feet' of any power. He argued that that action would set a precedent requiring a similar telegram to be sent every time there was a change in the government in Ireland. When I interviewed Moynihan in the 1980s, he did try to conceal the fact that it was a policy defeat which rankled even four decades later. His objections were brusquely swept to one side as a politically insecure MacBride sought to over-compensate for his revolutionary anti-democratic past by initiating a diplomatic gesture which was neither necessary nor prudent.

After the new government took office on February 18, 1948, the ambassador sent alarmist reports that Italy was in danger of returning to a communist/socialist government in the April general election. In an audience with the pope on February 27 - only two days after the fall of Czechoslovakia to communist dictatorship - Pius XII asked the ambassador what he should do if the Left won; the ambassador answered: "I added specifically that the [Irish] government, as well as the people, would regard it as the greatest moment in our history if He deigned to make Ireland the home of the Holy See, for the period of persecution."

The Pope replied: "Ireland is the only place I could go to - only there would I have the atmosphere and the sense of security to rule the Church as Christ wants Me to."

Panicked by a series of alarmist reports from the Holy See embassy, MacBride took decisions which no Irish foreign minister, before or since, has taken.

At a meeting in Paris, he gave Walshe very broad instructions to continue his engagement with his Christian Democratic contacts inside and outside the Vatican. In Dublin, MacBride supported the efforts of the Archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid, to raise funds for the Italian Christian Democratic campaign. The archbishop made a national radio appeal and money was collected in every diocese in the country, Dublin giving the bulk of over £60,000 collected. MacBride helped to send that money, through the department, to the ambassador who placed it in the right hands in the Holy See. Given the tight currency controls at the time, the moving of such a large sum out of the country through the Department of External Affairs and the nunciarture in Dublin required clearance at the highest level.

Ironically, MacBride completely overplayed his hand, dissipating Irish goodwill at the Holy See, by taking two wayward policy decisions: the Irish government refused to join NATO in 1949 to the annoyance of the Holy See, which wanted a Catholic power like Ireland to be inside that organisation; the second decision revealed diplomat illiteracy of the highest level. On the appointment of a new head of diplomatic mission, diplomatic courtesy requires that a government must first determine whether the appointee is acceptable. This is called an agrément.

After the papal nuncio to Ireland, Paschal Robinson, died on August 27, 1948, the Holy See routinely sent on the name of an experienced, elderly diplomat of Italian nationality to Iveagh House. MacBride, on the advice of Walshe, favoured the appointment of a nuncio of Irish origins, an Irish American for example. The minister held out for months until finally accepting the original nominee.

A future biographer of MacBride will, I imagine, have a cornucopia of sources from which to document the most confessional Irish Minister for External Affairs in State history. But spare a thought for Maurice Moynihan who, in 1948, courageously gave advice that cost him significant professional problems for the duration of the inter-party government.

Documents on Irish Foreign Policy 1948-51, Vol. IX (Royal Irish Academy).

Dermot Keogh is Emeritus Professor of History at UCC

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