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Former diplomat says Ireland shouldn’t have closed Vatican embassy

Seán Donlon – a former chief civil servant and ambassador – says Ireland has lost the chance to influence Church policy.

Sean Donlon, the former Irish ambassador to the US, says shutting the embassy in the Holy See is a bad idea.
Sean Donlon, the former Irish ambassador to the US, says shutting the embassy in the Holy See is a bad idea.
Image: Photocall Ireland

A FORMER AMBASSADOR and one of Ireland’s most prominent former civil servants has criticised the government’s decision to close Ireland’s embassy to the Holy See.

Seán Donlon, a former secretary-general at the Department of Foreign Affairs who has also served as Ireland’s ambassador to the United States, said the closure meant Ireland would miss opportunities to have input in Church policies.

“The policies of the Catholic Church are formulated in the Holy See,” Donlon told RTÉ’s Morning Ireland. “Irish bishops are appointed by the Holy See, and Irish bishops are individually responsible to the Holy See for the implementation of that policy.”

For this reason, he said, it was important that Ireland be “adequately represented” in the Vatican, “to fine-tune the policy that’s being formulated, and to be available for co-operation on a daily basis.”

While the Vatican has traditionally refused to accredit ambassadors who are also ambassadors to Italy, Donlon said it was still possible to double up on office accommodation for two separate ambassadors with “two doors in the same building, and two separate plaques”.

Donlon also argued that although Ireland may have been tempted to cut diplomatic ties in the wake of various child abuse scandals, similar moves had been contemplated with the UK in the 1970s at the onset of the Troubles.

Times of political turmoil, he said, were “a time when diplomacy comes into its own”.

Dual role

Ireland’s new ambassador to the Holy See, who is non-resident in Rome, is David Cooney – who also holds Donlon’s old role as chief civil servant within the Department.

Donlon said Cooney was a sensible appointment, as he had previously been stationed at the Holy See embassy earlier in his career, but that his time would be hampered by the responsibilities of his Department job.

Donlon has also previously acted as a special advisor to then-taoiseach John Bruton, and the Fine Gael advisor on Northern Ireland – further underlining the tensions within FG at the decision by foreign affairs minister Eamon Gilmore, of Labour, to shut the embassy.

It emerged in yesterday’s Sunday Business Post that the Holy See embassy was not among an original list of Irish missions earmarked for closure in a review of government spending earlier last year.

Though the Department of Foreign Affairs made a submission to a comprehensive spending review, in which it suggested closing the embassies in Iran and Timor Leste, the proposal to shut the Vatican one was made at a later date.

A spokeswoman for the Department said the decision to shut the Vatican premises “resulted from a review of overseas missions and the deployment of the Department’s reduced resources carried out by the Department at official level”.

“It did not arise at the initiative of the Tánaiste or any other member of Government,” she said.

Read: Government has ‘no immediate plans’ to review Vatican embassy closure

Poll: Should Ireland reopen its Vatican embassy?

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About the author:

Gavan Reilly

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