Tuesday, 21 February 2012
Seanad Éireann Debate
Senator Jim Walsh: Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit go dtí an Teach. This issue has been amplified in this House and elsewhere over a period of time. I note that the recent communication from the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade showed a direct saving from closing the Vatican Embassy of €400,000 and another saving from transferring the Italian Embassy. I recognise that in the current climate there is a need for all Departments to cut costs. I understand the embassy in the Vatican was one of the most cost-effective, with an ambassador, a Third Secretary and local administration assistance.
We should examine the salaries paid to ambassadors. I was very surprised to discover, many years ago, that some ambassadors are on a salary commensurate with the position of Secretary General of a Department and all others are paid at assistant secretary level. Given that most expenses are covered, perhaps these salary levels feed into costs and restrict our footprint.
I acknowledge that the Tánaiste stated, at the joint committee meeting and in the Seanad, that if a more cost-effective solution was found he would consider it. He mentioned co-location as a possibility and it would assist in changing the decision and reopening the embassy. Ireland Stand Up appeared before the joint committee today and made some very reasonable points. It would be a pity if the issue became political because it is not about that. Some people in my party, some people in Fine Gael and some people in the Labour Party feel strongly about it. The focus has come upon the latter because the Tánaiste is the leader of the Labour Party. Many people would like to see the situation revert to the status quo since 1929. We have a long-established relationship with the Vatican, which was the fourth mission established abroad following our independence. After the Lateran Treaty, when the Vatican state was established, Ireland was one of the first to establish an embassy. Up to that point, we had representation at the League of Nations, someone in London and someone in Washington. It was good for us because it provided recognition and, as a strongly Catholic country, it was appropriate and reasonable.
The Minister of State and, I am sure, the Tánaiste will know Ireland has always placed considerable emphasis on pursuing its human rights agenda in other countries and at home. The Minister of State will acknowledge the Vatican was a great ally in that regard. Freedom of speech, assembly and religion, and measures against intolerance and discrimination, are all very much featured by the Vatican.
I would like us to consider the subdivision of the Villa Spada. I understand this can be done as I was there once. As there are a number of entrances, there could be a separate entrance and, perhaps, a separate wing of the building dedicated to an embassy to the Vatican. There would be no rental cost and the moneys would already have been saved owing to the rental associated with the Italian Embassy. There would be a small incremental cost attached. There is obviously a cost attached to having a non-resident ambassador. The incremental cost would be reasonable.
I would like to believe we could consider my proposal prior to the Eucharistic Congress. Many people will be attending the congress in Ireland in June. I hope the Vatican can be asked directly about co-location. It should be told that we would consider the option favourably and try to achieve agreement with it in that regard. I encourage the State to make this known. If it did, there would be a positive response from the Vatican to enable my proposal to be implemented. Many people feel very hurt over what has occurred. I would like to believe this proposal will be taken on board in the spirit in which I am making it. I hope it will lead to a resolution.
Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (Deputy Joe Costello): I thank the Senator for raising this matter. The decision to close Ireland’s resident embassy to the Holy See, in addition to our embassy in Tehran and mission in Timor-Leste, was taken by the Government in response to budgetary pressures and on the recommendation of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, which sought to assess where budgetary cuts would least affect the national interest at this time of economic crisis.
In addition to the immediate financial savings, 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. Nobody pretends this is an ideal arrangement, but it is the most cost-effective in the current budgetary situation.
The total cost saving in a full year from the closure is estimated at €845,000. Some €400,000 of this will come from the closure of the resident embassy to the Holy See. An additional €445,000 in savings will come from the transfer of Ireland’s embassy to Italy from its previous, rented premises to the State-owned Villa Spada.
For what I understand are historical reasons, the Holy See does not accept accreditation from a resident embassy that is also accredited to Italy. It is not acceptable for one ambassador to be accredited to both states, nor is it acceptable for embassies to the Italian Republic and the Holy See to operate from the same address. It would not be possible for the Villa Spada, as presently configured, to accommodate both embassies in different buildings with separate addresses.
The Holy See has agreed to the nomination of the Secretary General of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Mr. David Cooney, as our non-resident ambassador to the Holy See. It is expected that he will present his credentials to Pope Benedict in May. Mr. Cooney has travelled to Rome three times since his nomination for meetings with Vatican officials, and will continue to travel there regularly.
The decision to close the resident embassy to the Holy See will not be reversed in the immediate term. The unavoidable budgetary cuts and the reduction in staff numbers that necessitated the closure are still in effect and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has neither the staff nor the financial resources to reverse the mission closures decided upon by the Government last November. However, as the economic circumstances improve, and in the context of the regular review of our diplomatic network, it may be possible to revisit the matter at some time in the future. If the Vatican is prepared to relax its current requirements so as to allow the State-owned Villa Spada to serve as a location for our embassies to both Italy and the Holy See, that can be taken into account in any future considerations.
Senator Jim Walsh: I have two points. I welcome the last sentence of the Minister of State’s response. This issue was brought to the attention of the Tánaiste’s predecessor, Deputy Micheál Martin, when he was Minister for Foreign Affairs and he rejected the concept of closure. The overall budget for the Department is €150 million. The saving was quite small, therefore. If the Department considers financial and staffing resources, it should be possible for it to do as I propose if there is a relaxation of the Vatican’s current requirements.
I urge the Minister of State to encourage the Tánaiste to initiate discussions with the Holy See with a view to resolving this matter. There are many doors in the Villa Spada and, therefore, my proposal could work. I am aware the Holy See would seek a separate address from that of the Italian embassy but that could obviously be done quite easily by using a separate entrance, subdividing the building and retaining the small staff that was in place. I urge the Minister of State to determine whether this issue can be resolved. It will not go away. It has caused angst among many people and the campaign will only grow.
Deputy Joe Costello: I will certainly take on board what the Senator said. I will inform the Tánaiste of his views on the last paragraph of my response. I will certainly clarify the matter for the Senator.
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