04 November 2011

The End of an Era: Squandering Our Influence for a Million Euro

I don't think I'll ever vote for Fine Gael again. Despite having long supported them at home, even having joined Young Fine Gael when in university -- though busy as I was, spending three hours every day bussing my way across Dublin not to mention working five nights a week in a local pub, I could hardly be described as every having been an active member -- their words and deeds in government have left me regretting how I voted before returning to England this spring.

The current government's been in office less than nine months, during which time its arrogance, mendacity, and stupidity have disheartened and disgusted me on an all too frequent basis. It seems that Fine Gael is no more encumbered by principles than Fianna Fáil was, and that the only real difference is that it pretends to be. Hypocrisy, as they say, is the tribute vice pays to virtue.

Time and again, I've been left dejected...
  • By Enda Kenny's broken promises to the people of Roscommon, his dishonest denial of having made such promises, and his condemnation of those who challenged him for having lied... 
  • By the Taoiseach's lying to the Dail and misrepresenting the Cloyne Report, attacking the Vatican on spurious grounds rather than focusing on real problems at home...
  • By the Government's failure to take any action to challenge the vast majority of child abuse and neglect in Ireland -- almost all of which takes place in the family circle -- and by its undermining of child protection in real terms through the slashing of funding for child and family support charities...
  • By the Government's eventual dismissal as legalistic pedantry of the Vatican's refutation of the Taoiseach and Tánaiste's false allegations...
  • By the introduction of clumsy legislation that appears to criminalise anyone who has ever failed to report knowledge of even the most trivial theft...
  • By the attempt to rush through constitutional amendments without any national debate as though they were of pressing urgency, and sneering ad hominem attacks on those who'd questioned the wisdom of the way those amendments had been worded...
  • By the whipping of the Fine Gael party in the Seanad to amend a motion condemning how millions of girls are routinely aborted in China and India because they're female, in favour of instead condemning an undefined and general concept of infanticide...
  • By the decision just this week to pay €700 million to bondholders of Anglo-Irish Bank to whom the state was neither morally nor legally beholden, as the current minister for Finance had admitted last December little more than two months before assuming office...
It's almost enough to make me lose faith in Irish politics altogether.

It's not just the Economy, Stupid!
And then, yesterday, the Government announced that it's going to close our third-oldest embassy, that being our embassy to the Holy See, which we've had since 1929.

(Yes I know we didn't call it an embassy then, since we didn't call any of our diplomatic representatives ambassadors until 1950. You know what I mean.)

Doing so, it appears, will save us a million euro or so, and we just can't afford that nowadays, especially at a time when we're choosing to pay several hundred times that amount to bondholders to whom we're not beholden. ''While the Embassy to the Holy See is one of Ireland’s oldest missions,' says the Government, 'it yields no economic return.'

Now. The Embassy's own website -- and I think we can assume that as an embassy it's speaking for the Government -- says the following:
'The Embassy of Ireland to the Holy See is the official channel of communication between the Irish Government and the Holy See: such communications cover a range of international political, economic, developmental and human rights issues.

The Embassy maintains contact with the many Irish Roman Catholic religious living and working in Rome. It has contact also with the representatives of other faith communities, Christian and non-Christian, that are in dialogue with the Holy See.'
You'll note two things there. Firstly, it seems the Embassy to the Holy See is an official channel of communications on economic issues, which rather seems to contradict the idea that the Embassy yields no economic return. Secondly, it does lots of other things too, as indeed do all our diplomatic missions.

We have quite a few diplomatic missions that hardly have economic returns as their priority, after all. In France, for instance, we've a permanent delegate in Paris to the United Nations Educational, Science, and Cultural Organization, and an ambassador in Strasbourg who acts as a permanent representative to the Council of Europe. We've two ambassadors to the United Nations, these being in New York and Geneva. Our delegation in Brussels to Partnership for Peace and our permanent mission in Vienna to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe are both headed by ambassadors. The reason why we have such missions and delegations is very simple: our national interests are not exclusively economic.

Paddy Power is Soft Power
Ireland's a small country, and one almost wholly lacking in what's called 'hard power'. We may have a trade surplus second only to Germany in the EU, but I think we all know that if we got into an economic war with anyone we'd lose. And that's just economic war; can you imagine how we'd do in a real one? Our army isn't capable of protecting the national territory, our air force isn't even tasked with protecting our national airspace, and there's no conceivable way the eight patrol boats in our tiny navy could protect our territorial waters, much less protect our exclusive economic zone or prevent an invasion. We spend a smaller proportion of our GDP on defence than any other EU country bar Malta. Incapable of defending even ourselves, we couldn't even dream of using force projection to achieve our foreign policy aims.

We rely wholly on soft power to achieve our international aims. We talk to people. We get things done in meetings, but even more so we get things done in corridors and over drinks. And we've always been very good at this. We don't throw our measly weight around. We rely on informal networking, haggling, and chat, and we're extraordinarily good at it. To take an obvious example from European politics, Jason O'Mahony expressed the reality of the situation superbly in his excellent and hilarious Spoofers Guide to the Lisbon Treaty:
'Fact: Ireland does not rely on the size of its population to negotiate what we need within the EU. How the hell do you think a country with 0.8% of the population negotiated €30 billion in aid? '
Catholic stuff aside, I fear the Government's decision after 82 years of continual diplomatic networking to shut the designated embassy to the Holy See shall prove hugely detrimental to our national interests. We rely on informal networking to achieve our national objectives, after all, and even if we'd save a million or so euro by shutting our embassy to the Holy See, this saving would come at a price, as Paddy Agnew wrote in the Irish Times back in July:
'Not only would it strain relations with the Holy See, but Ireland would be cutting itself off from one of the world’s best "listening posts", given that the Vatican has an unparalleled worldwide network of contacts, intelligence and information.'

Networks and Nodes
A groundless fear? Hardly. Hell, anyone who's watched the West Wing episode 'Inauguration, Part I' will remember a few exchanges relevant to civil war in a -- fictional -- African country, notably where one Bob Slattery, the National Security Advisor, says: 'Intelligence is thin outside Bitanga. In fact, the Archbishop's network of clerics is probably as good as it gets.'
Startled, the President replies, 'The Catholic Church has better intelligence than we do?'
'It's a very small embassy, maybe ten people,' says the embarrassed Bob, 'And no Agency presence.'

Contrary to popular belief and myth-mongering, the Catholic Church isn't a neat organisation. It's not even close to being a pyramid with the Pope at the top, and with each country run by an archbishop or a cardinal or a bishops' conference. The Irish Church, for instance, has more than 180 interlinked and identifiable parts many of which aren't even theoretically answerable to the Archbishop of Armagh. A bit like the Church of England, the Church isn't a corporation so much as it is a huge network of overlapping and often largely autonomous clusters, but within this network there are certain nodal points, the most important of which is Rome. If local dioceses, churches, bishops, priests, charities, institutions, schools, hospitals, or ordinary laypeople want to, they can pass information along to these points, and that information can spread. It's messy and uneven and often deeply inefficient, but it can work very well. 

The simple fact of the matter is that with institutional Catholic presences in almost every country in the world, the Church has access to information to situations on the ground that no other organization can rival.

Anyone who thinks that this sort of informal information is redundant in an era of modern telecommunications needs to sit down and start reading some American foreign policy, strategy, and intelligence papers from a decade back. In the aftermath of 9-11, it was recognised that major failings in American intelligence had enabled the attacks, and that chief among these failings was a fetishization of technology that led the American intelligence agencies to divert resources from traditional human intelligence; since then the Americans have been working very hard and investing huge amounts of money to make up lost ground. They've learned in a horrifying way something they should have known all along just based on their own lives: that there's no substitute for personal contact.

What's more, there are Irish people throughout the world, often engaged in charity and development work; it makes sense for the Irish State to maintain close and cordial diplomatic and personal ties with Rome's diplomats, given that the Church is often better equipped and positioned than the Irish State to help Irish people far from home.

Caution from an Unexpected Corner
Even the Irish Times, which has long made it its mission to challenge the Church in Ireland, warned a couple of months back against the Government reducing our diplomatic clout by ceasing to accredit an ambassador to the Holy See:
'... there has been and continues to be a national interest in maintaining a close relationship and dialogue with the Catholic Church at an international level. It articulates the faith of the majority of our citizens and its representatives play a crucial daily role not only in the spiritual guidance of our people, but in the education of our children and our health services.

In 2009, the McCarthy report on public spending recommended that the State’s network of embassies and consulates be reduced from 76 to 55. The scale of that cull was rejected by the department but a review is under way. It would be a mistake, however, if cost considerations tipped the argument, inflamed as it is by the current controversy, in favour of closing the Villa Spada.'
All very well, you might think, but in what areas might the Irish State want to haggle and network with people who work in the Vatican or who have connections with the Holy See in one way or another? This is, after all, the twenty-first century.

A Soft Power Superpower
Just to think in terms of our national strategic interests, I talked about this to some degree in connection with the Papal visit to Britain last year. Quoting myself to save on typing:
'There are straightforward political reasons why the British government should have wanted the Pope to visit. The British government and the Holy See work together in the fields of international justice, development, and debt, as well as other issues such as the environment. The government wants to develop these ties further to make use of what it perceives as the Holy See's massive 'soft power' in these areas. This is why the Pope has been invited here on a formal state visit, and is why more than half the cost of the visit is being paid for by the state.'
The same principles are at work in the case of Ireland. The Church is the second-largest international development body and the second-largest humanitarian organization in the world, and its help is not contingent on people signing up to Catholic dogma. As the current Pope put it in his 2006 encyclical, Deus Caritas Est,
'Charity, furthermore, cannot be used as a means of engaging in what is nowadays considered proselytism. Love is free; it is not practised as a way of achieving other ends. [...]  Those who practise charity in the Church's name will never seek to impose the Church's faith upon others. They realize that a pure and generous love is the best witness to the God in whom we believe and by whom we are driven to love. A Christian knows when it is time to speak of God and when it is better to say nothing and to let love alone speak.'
Sure, I've no doubt that there are plenty of Catholics throughout the world who disregard this. That's what happens: people are individuals, and they're not controlled by Rome. Nonetheless, throughout the world, millions upon millions of Catholics act in harmony with the Church's teaching and in communion with the Pope, working to help people because they themselves are Catholic, not because they people they're helping are.

I'd recommend you to take a look at how the monks in Of Gods and Men help their Muslim neighbours to get some idea of how and why this works, but just to take some examples to give a broad view...

Catholic bodies run a quarter of all African hospitals and arguably do more to fight HIV-AIDS than any other organization in the world. The Church plays a huge role internationally in conflict resolution, disarmament negotiations, and hostage releases, not to mention campaigning against the death penalty, the international arms trade, and specific wars such as the 2003 invasion of Iraq.  The Church has long been a leading advocate of financial and other aid for the developing world, an ardent proponent of debt cancellation for the poorest of countries, and one of the driving forces behind the Millennium Development Goals.

Have we placed a new Ideology over our National Interests?
Put simply, if Ireland cares about international development, world peace, health and education in the developing world, or any of the other things I've mentioned -- and I believe it does* -- then it needs to work closely with the Holy See. And if it cares about the interests of Irish people scattered across the world, then it makes sense to work closely with the Holy Sea. Having bankrupted ourselves, we're weaker now as a country than we've been in decades, and we need all the friends we can get right now. 

It's madness to weaken ourselves still further by turning our back on the most important player in global civil society.

* I'd include the Environment on the list too, as Rome's worked hard and spoken out often on that issue as well, seeing us as having responsibilities as stewards of the world in which we live, but it appears that the Government's now decided that climate change isn't really something we need to worry about. And so, as though one were needed, Phil Hogan supplies a tenth obvious reason to give up on Fine Gael.


Jeannette said...

I don't have specific political understanding of much of what you write about...and yet the principles are clear to me. I see you are committed to honest communication, unearthing facts and the hard work of thinking things through.

We are told there is time when the love of many shall grow cold... may you stay warm...no not just warm, but hot for the Lord's sake.

Donum Vitae said...

Great post yet again! Going to retweet.

courtney said...

The economist had an interesting article on the Vatican diplomatic mission a few years back (July 19th 2007 print edition).

The link to the article is here:


In the light of this article, I am left wondering if perhaps this move by Ireland tells us more about Ireland's place in the world more than it tells us something about that of the Vatican's?

BeanGanAinm/MaidrinRuadh said...

Thanks for a good article

Lynda said...

Thanks for this rational comment on Govt's GUBU behaviour. Where'd it dissapear to for 12 days??

Rob Fuller said...

Thanks for this. I don't accept the "economic grounds" justification for the closure of Ireland's embassy at the Vatican.

Ireland is bankrupt through economic incompetence, arrogance, greed and mismanagement, and now a slave to the economic policies of foreign institutions who are bailing us out of this mess. Perhaps Mr. Kenny and his cohorts in government feel compelled to assert independence by declaring ourselves free of "the Church"?

Interestingly the same Church was a primary unifying factor during a previous era of occupation. Although there is a good case to argue that the relationship between the Irish and the Catholic Church, has been unhealthy for many years, it's unfortunate to see the pendulum swinging so far the other direction now.

I'm very disappointed with the momentum of this government towards the Catholic Church, and like you, I will be inclined to never again vote for Fine Gael if they don't make a change of direction in this matter.