Remarks by Mr. Dermot Ahern, T.D., Minister for Foreign Affairs at the Pontifical Irish College, Rome, 13 November 2004, Part I
Monsignor Bergin, Cardinal Connell, Archbishops and Bishops, Ambassadors and members of the Diplomatic Corps, Ladies and Gentlemen
It is a great honour to represent the Government in Rome today as we celebrate the 75th anniversary of the opening of diplomatic relations between Ireland and the Holy See. I am particularly pleased to have this opportunity to meet with so many members of the Irish community, both religious and lay, and the friends of the Irish community in Rome.
I would like at the outset to record my deep appreciation for the profound involvement of the Holy See in the events to mark this important anniversary. My wife and I, and the visiting delegation from Dublin, were moved by the generosity of His Holiness Pope John Paul II in meeting with us this morning and underlining the significance of the relationship between Ireland and the Holy See. It is impossible to pay adequate tribute to the global contribution of the Pope over the past 26 years. His voice has been heard – and continues to be heard – across the world. It has been heard clearly in Ireland. It is a voice for hope, for human dignity and human rights, for justice and for the peaceful resolution of disputes. His spiritual message and his physical courage remain an inspiration to all people of goodwill.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
The question might be asked: why make a particular point of celebrating 75 years of diplomatic relations? It is certainly a relatively short period in terms of Church history. But there is, I think, a real significance in our gathering here at the Irish College to assess the importance of the decision by the Government of the Irish Free State early in 1929 to propose the opening of diplomatic relations and the exchange of legations with the Holy See. We do so from the vantage point of an Ireland few could have foreseen even thirty years ago. As a country, we are now grappling with the challenges posed by unprecedented and sustained economic growth and social transformation, the problems of prosperity rather than those of persistent economic underdevelopment. We are making significant progress in overcoming bitter, and often violent, historic divisions on the island of Ireland. We are working in partnership with our closest neighbour for the implementation of all aspects of the historic Good Friday Agreement. Ireland is proud to have played its part internationally, as a member of the UN Security Council in 2001 and 2002. And as members of the European Union since 1973, we have recently concluded our sixth Presidency, during which the accession of ten new Member States formally put an end to the tragic and wasteful post-war division of Europe.
For the new Irish state, the opening of diplomatic relations with the Holy See in 1929 was a very significant moment, not least in asserting the identity and presence of the Irish Free State internationally. By 1929, Irish diplomatic representation abroad was limited to the office of the High Commissioner in London, the Permanent Delegate to the League of Nations in Geneva and the Legation in Washington. This was doubled with the decision to open diplomatic missions in the Vatican, Paris and Berlin. The then Secretary of the Department of External Affairs, Joseph Walshe, devoted considerable energy to the establishment of diplomatic relations with the Holy See. He visited Rome in May 1929, and in stark contrast to the situation we have all experienced today, reported back to Dublin, in some shock, on the apparent lack of enthusiasm of the Irish College and the Irish clergy in Rome for the project. He reported that the Irish and Ireland were little known in the upper reaches of the Vatican and that in Rome “Great Britain’s opinion becomes of paramount interest”. Walshe concluded that “there is no doubt that the Irish Minister (to the Holy See) could be a centre around which Ireland could again find her proper position in Rome. He must have the support and good will of the Irish clergy in Rome, though that will probably come of itself if he succeeds in establishing friendly relations with the fifteen or twenty people who count in the Vatican. On the other hand, he must maintain friendly, or at least correct, relations with the British Legation, while keeping outside their sphere of absorption”. We have travelled a very long distance since those days.