Back in the day, the according of a high priority to Ireland’s representation at the Holy See was probably justified.
In the 1920s and 30s, the Irish Free State’s foreign affairs were a fairly simple matter.
First priority: the UK. The question of national independence and sovereignty was closely bound up with our relationship with the UK - and, of course, there was unfinished business there. Plus, the bulk of our foreign trade was with the UK, and the trade that wasn’t with the UK was through the UK. Of Irish citizens abroad, the bulk were in the UK. Of foreign citizens in Ireland, the bulk were UK citizens. So, no matter what aspect of our foreign relations you considered - political, economic, consular - the UK was always the no. 1 country to think about.
Second priority: the US. Of people of Irish descent and Irish identity (as opposed to Irish citizenship) abroad, by far the largest and best organised and most self-aware community was in the US. Plus, the Irish political and constitutional traditions drew on the US, as a counterweight to the UK heritage. And, if Ireland needed goodwill abroad in relation to any difference between us the UK, the Americans were the ones whose goodwill you wanted.
Third priority: the European powers, notably France and Germany. If Ireland was going to be seen as an entity separate and independent from the UK, it had to be so seen by countries like France and Germany. And if Ireland was going to widen its international trade, it was going to be with such countries.
After that, I honestly think you could say that the Vatican was the next priority. At the time, and indeed until the 1970s at least, Irish people going abroad and making a difference in the world in any organised way were doing so, to a large extent, through the Catholic church. I live in Australia, for example, where figures of considerable cultural and even political influence were here because they were sent here by the Catholic church. The church was the main agency - certainly, the main organised agency - through which Irish cultural and social influence was felt in places like Australia, and huge numbers of Irish people were playing various roles throughout the British Empire as missionaries, bishops and so forth. We think of Ireland as insular and the church as responsible for this, and on one level that’s true. But, on another level, to the extent that Ireland was cosmopolitan at all, it was because of the church. In the 1970s, I was educated by a bunch of men who had lived abroad for decades - in Europe, in Africa, further afield. And, when I travelled in the 1980s as a young adult, I found that I was far more aware of, e.g. African issues, and knew far more about what was going on there, than anyone who’d been educated in Britain or the US. So from the foundation of the state through to the 1970s at least, any attempt to engage with our exposure as a nation to the rest of the world which didn’t address the Catholic ecclesiastical dimension of that exposure was going to be seriously unbalanced.
That’s been changing, of course, for a generation or more, and nowadays we have more and more international exposure and experience, and it’s less and less connected with the Catholic church. So the priority to be according to the Vatican representation is lower.
But, still. Ask yourself why any country has diplomatic representation at the Vatican. Over on the A&A board they have a thread on this filled with predictable comments about how the Vatican is only 110 acres, snigger, snigger. If I didn’t know they were just being bashful and seeking to divert attention from their thoughtful awareness, I’d think they seriously imagined that diplomatic representation is about territory (and that’s why our embassy to Russia is so colossal).
The Vatican City State was established only in 1929, but the Holy See has been exchanging ambassadors with major and minor powers since forever. At times the Holy See has controlled swathes of central Italy, at other times no territory at all, but it was never about the territory.
The Holy See is an internationally significant organisation. It happens at the moment to control a fairly nominal piece of territory, but that is not where its significance comes from.
The question is, is the Holy See an organisation of significance to Ireland? And the answer is, to some extent, yes, even still. It’s significant for a couple of reasons, one being the involvement of Irish people in the organisation (though this is not the phenomenon it used to be). Another is the fact that the Holy See has a reach where Ireland doesn’t. A lot of people who work in the Holy See have come from elsewhere, or have lived elsewhere for years, and they bring a depth of experience and awareness and a diversity of culture.
And, apart from who you might deal with in the Holy See, a lot of small countries have diplomatic representation at the Vatican because, by doing so, they come into contact with lots of diplomatic representatives of other small countries with which they don’t have bilateral relationships. They network, they establish channels of communication, they discuss issues. Not so much a listening post as an information exchange and network. Let's say Ireland is lobbying for a seat on the UN Security Council, or for support in relation to our stance at an international convention on maritime law, and we need to influence the votes of as many countries as we can? The Vatican embassy will be one of the busier mission engaged in that kind of work.
Now, the Vatican is not unique in this latter regard. Other major diplomatic centres - London, Paris, Washington - serve a similar function. But most of the time, effort and attention of embassies to those countries is taken up with relationships - economic, political, cultural - with those countries. Whereas embassies to the Vatican don’t have the same pressures.
Perhaps participating in an information exchange of this kind is a luxury that Iveagh House can’t afford at present. If so, the embassy to the Holy See is rightly closed. If, on the other hand, it was closed to signal our displeasure with the Vatican over How Recent Issues Have Been Handled, that might be understandable and even gratifying. (It gratifies me, anyway.) But, make no mistake, we’d be paying a price in terms of diplomatic awareness and influence in order to send that signal. And we should acknowledge that.
Last edited by Peregrinus; 16-02-2012 at 09:22.