Diplomats accredited to the Holy See
Well, it seems the Irish government is reversing its decision to close the Vatican embassy: according to reports the Cabinet has approved the reopening of a smaller embassy to the Holy See. The reason given: "This will enable Ireland to engage directly with the leadership of Pope Francis on the issues of poverty eradication, hunger and human rights", a spokesperson in the Department of Foreign Affairs has said.
This is to be welcomed, although it does not take to a genius to work out that the announcement is made at a time when the country is preparing for the local and European elections and at a time both government parties fear they may well be facing the loss of many seats. Are politicians that obvious? Yes.
I think we all know why the embassy was closed in the first place - and it had nothing to do with finance and little to do with child protection issues: it was a political decision, pure and simple, one aimed at the Catholic Church by a certain party. However, as they have probably found out, without a resident ambassador at the Holy See, Ireland is somewhat out in the cold when it comes to networking and gaining information.
The Holy See is one of the best listening posts in the diplomatic world, where the host country makes few demands on the diplomats accredited to it, treats them well and provides an easy and friendly forum for networking to take place. Given that the Church is present in every country in the world and she is regularly updated by nuncios, bishops, priests and laity in those countries on various situations and issues, resident diplomats have access to information their own foreign embassies may not be able to get. The Church is also one of the world's largest charitable organisations (if not the largest) and so any country's work in the era of poverty, human rights can only benefit from a close diplomatic relationship with the Holy See.
Ireland has excluded itself from most of this, and I know that while the civil servant appointed as non-resident ambassador has been doing Trojan work to keep channels of communication open with the Holy See, it has been difficult and Ireland has been the loser.
The plans to reopen the embassy will begin, I presume, although the date of its actual opening is not yet decided. Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin has welcomed it, as have groups who have been campaigning against the original decision. It is good news, but I would not see it as a gesture of reconciliation with the Church or with Catholics: it is, in my view, a purely pragmatic decision and it may well be an effort to coax back some Catholic votes: some commenters are calling it a stunt.
I wonder if this decision has anything to do with the revelations which emerged during the Vatican's testimony at the UN a few days ago: that Pope Benedict had dismissed almost 400 priests in two years as part of his work in dealing with child abuse? These revelations certainly contradict what Taoiseach Enda Kenny said in his personal attack on the Pope in the Dail a couple of years ago.