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Topical Issue Debate - Diplomatic Representation

Thursday, 9 February 2012

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 755 No. 1

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Deputy Seán Ó Fearghaíl: Information on Seán Ó Fearghaíl Zoom on Seán Ó Fearghaíl I thank the Ceann Comhairle’s office for facilitating me today. There was some confusion on this issue yesterday. I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, who will reply and I commend her on doing a superb job in her brief. She is clearly one of the most outstandingly hard working Ministers of State, but she will forgive me for saying that I am a little disappointed there is no Minister from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade here to address this issue.

On 3 November last, the Tánaiste announced his decision to close the embassies in Iran, East Timor and the Vatican. The amount to be saved by the closure of the embassy in the Vatican is €455,000. Fianna Fáil has been clear from the outset in its opposition to this closure, [69]citing our important and historical links with the Vatican, its position as an important listening post for international affairs and the fact that it is the centre of the Catholic religious faith. The Vatican Embassy represents one of Ireland’s oldest diplomatic ties, with a diplomatic representation to the Holy See having been established in 1929 when the Vatican City state as it currently exists was founded. The Vatican Embassy is being closed at a time when other notable countries such as Russia, the United Kingdom and Australia are building up their diplomatic links with the Holy See.

The Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade denied that the decision to close the embassy was a consequence of recent strained diplomatic relations. He stated, “The key consideration was obviously where we could make savings. I was anxious to retain resident missions in countries where there is a clear economic or trade interest.” The foreign policy being pursued by the Government, therefore, appears to be solely founded on the basis of economic advantage rather than the broader diplomatic goals founded on shared values. There is a certain irony in that because yesterday there was an interesting debate in the foreign affairs committee about Ireland’s proposal to seek election to the United Nations Human Rights Council.

Catholicism remains the majority religion in Ireland and despite the scandals that have beset it, the values espoused by the church and the policies it pursues have a direct impact on the State. The Tánaiste said all of this and more as recently as last July when he outlined the reason for the continuation of our embassy. He said the main purpose of our embassy to the Holy See was twofold. The first was “to maintain a permanent point of contact with the headquarters of the Roman Catholic Church, which continues to be the stated religious denomination of a substantial majority of Irish citizens and whose actions and policies have a direct impact and influence on Irish society.” The second was “to maintain ongoing relations with a significant global political entity which has diplomatic relations with 179 states.” He pointed out that the Holy See has one of the largest diplomatic corps in the world, “making the Vatican an important listening post and crossroads on a range of global social, political and international issues of interest to Ireland, including human rights, development, disarmament and conflict resolution.”

It now appears the Fine Gael Members on the other side of the House finally realise the error of their ways. There appears to be a diversity of opinion within the Government, if media reports are to be believed. It is reported that at a recent Fine Gael Parliamentary Party meeting the Taoiseach reassured his backbenchers that the decision to close the Vatican Embassy would be reviewed. The Taoiseach went so far as to point out his close personal relations with the Catholic Church. During the heated meeting, according to media reports, the comments were endorsed by the Minister of State, Deputy Lucinda Creighton, among others. It has been reported that 30 members of the parliamentary party spoke in favour of the motion put down by Deputy Tony McLoughlin calling for the decision to be reviewed. Furthermore, I have also read that Deputy Colm Keaveney of the Labour Party, who attended the Stand Up lobby meeting in Buswells Hotel, told people at that meeting that we could afford the embassy.

It appeared that consensus had finally been reached and a review would be put in place to ensure that the re-opening of the embassy would be put back on the agenda. However, according to last weekend’s Sunday Independent somebody forgot to tell the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade about the deliberations of the Fine Gael Party. He issued an unequivocal denial that there would be any change in the policy, stating that it was a Government decision and no decision would be reversed. Clearly, there is a breakdown of communications on this important issue. It is important for the country that there is cohesion between the Government parties as they deal with the manifest crisis that faces us.

[70]Our party is strongly committed to the re-opening of the embassy. We believe the members of the Fine Gael Party who spoke forcefully about this at their parliamentary party meeting were reflecting the genuine views of a great number of Irish people. We call on the Tánaiste and the Fine Gael backbenchers, who had the courage of their convictions to stand up to be counted on this issue, to move now to redress the wrong that was done in closing this embassy and to re-open it.

Minister of State at the Department of Health (Deputy Kathleen Lynch): Information on Kathleen Lynch Zoom on Kathleen Lynch I apologise that I am not the Tánaiste, in more ways than one. My personal experience of the embassy in the Vatican was very positive. It was extraordinarily efficient and the staff were very courteous. They did their best to fulfil any request that was made. That should be put on the record.

I apologise that the script of my reply is not yet available. It will be provided to the Deputy.

The decision of the Government to close the Embassy of Ireland to the Holy See, as well as Ireland’s Embassy in Tehran and our mission in East Timor, was taken following a review of overseas missions carried out by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade which gave particular attention to the economic return from bilateral missions. While the review identified the negative repercussions of closing any overseas mission it was not possible to avoid some cutbacks in our mission network, given the pressing need to reduce Government expenditure across the board.

It is important to make clear that we have not cut off diplomatic relations with the Holy See. We have simply decided that in the present circumstances our ambassador will operate on a non-residential basis. This decision to change our representation to the Holy See to non-resident status was driven by economic factors derived from our need to cut public expenditure and to focus the modest resources of our diplomatic service on economic recovery.

The total cost saving in a full year is estimated to be, as the Deputy has already stated, €845,000, of which €400,000 will come from the closure of the resident embassy to the Holy See and €445,000 from savings on rental arising from the transfer of the embassy to Italy to the State-owned Villa Spada. The wind-down of the resident embassy to the Holy See and the transfer of the embassy have been completed.

In addition to the immediate financial saving, the nature of the responsibilities of the embassy to the Holy See, particularly the fact that it is not involved in consular work or trade promotion, makes it more suitable than most embassies to be covered by non-resident accreditation. No one pretends this is an ideal arrangement but it is the most cost effective in the current budgetary situation.

Notwithstanding the differences that arose between successive Irish Governments and the Holy See in recent years, the decision to close the embassy was not taken in response to these differences. If the Government had wanted to make such a statement it would have done so far more clearly and at the time.

The Government’s decision to nominate the Secretary General of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Mr. David Cooney, as our non-resident ambassador means he will be ideally placed to inform the Government of any potential issues with the Vatican, thereby helping to head off difficulties in the future. The Holy See has agreed Mr. Cooney’s nomination and it is expected that he will present his credentials to Pope Benedict in May. Mr. Cooney has travelled to Rome twice since his nomination for meetings with Vatican officials and will represent the State at the Consistory of Cardinals on Saturday 18 February. On his previous visit he attended the ordination of the incoming Nuncio, Archbishop Charles Brown, by Pope Benedict and conveyed to Archbishop Brown the best wishes of the President, Government and people of [71]Ireland. The Government looks forward to working closely with Archbishop Brown, who arrived in Ireland last week, in his roles as Apostolic Nuncio and Dean of the Diplomatic Corps. I understand he is to present his credentials to President Higgins on 16 February.

The Government will continue to review our diplomatic network, including, as the financial situation improves, the possibility of reopening a resident embassy to the Holy See on a more modest and cost effective basis.

I hope this answer satisfies the Deputy.

Deputy Seán Ó Fearghaíl: Information on Seán Ó Fearghaíl Zoom on Seán Ó Fearghaíl The Minister of State would be surprised if I were satisfied.

Deputy Kathleen Lynch: Information on Kathleen Lynch Zoom on Kathleen Lynch I would not.

Deputy Seán Ó Fearghaíl: Information on Seán Ó Fearghaíl Zoom on Seán Ó Fearghaíl However, I thank her for her response. I applaud her welcome of the appointment of Archbishop Brown and acknowledge the value of the appointment of someone of the calibre of Mr. David Cooney, albeit as non-resident ambassador.

That said, the Minister of State has not addressed the essence of my concern at the lack of cohesion in Government on this matter. The Taoiseach made it clear that this is something that should be reviewed. Implicit in what he said was that there would be an early and imminent review. That position was directly contradicted by the Tánaiste last weekend.

An allied issue is the possible visit of the Pope to Ireland to correspond with the Eucharistic Congress planned for later this year, 80 years from when it was last convened here. The congress will be of enormous significance to people of the Catholic faith. It will also be of major economic benefit. I cannot understand why the Taoiseach, or the Tánaiste, cannot issue an unambiguous invitation to the Pope to come to Ireland. We were delighted to welcome President Obama, Queen Elizabeth and the Dalai Lama, but the Taoiseach has side-stepped every question put to him as to whether he would extend a clear and unambiguous invitation to the Pope. He said the Pope would be welcome. We know he would, but why would the Taoiseach not invite him? Is he captured by the comments he made in the aftermath of the publication of the Cloyne report? Is he captured by those remarks, or why will he not issue a direct invitation?

Deputy Kathleen Lynch: Information on Kathleen Lynch Zoom on Kathleen Lynch As a Deputy who has more prolonged experience of coalition government, Deputy Ó Fearghaíl understands that when there are two parties in government Ministers do not always tic tac with one another when decisions are made in their Departments. I do not know what went on in the Fine Gael Party. I have enough to do to keep track of what goes on in the Labour Party. I merely read political commentary in the newspaper, and that commentary is not always correct.

The Taoiseach has made it clear that if the Pope were to indicate that he wanted to visit Ireland not alone would he be made most welcome but would be given all the respect and courtesy a man of his position would require. When Pope John Paul ll visited Ireland I do not know if he came on foot of an invitation from the Government. He may have been invited by the Cardinal and the Irish bishops. I do not know the protocol of these matters. If the Pope wished to visit Ireland he would be made most welcome and would be treated with all the deference he deserves.

I hope this answers the Deputy’s question.

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