Northern Ireland

Pope Francis' election highlights strained Vatican/Irish relations

Image caption Pope Francis blesses the crowds in St Peter's Square

Saint Patrick's Day 2013 was like no other for the Irish community here in Rome.

Italy spoiled the party a little with an emphatic first ever defeat of Ireland in the Six Nations rugby at Stadio Olimpico.

But many Irish supporters took the opportunity to join the thousands in St Peter's Square to see the newly-elected Pope Francis impart his blessing.

The Pope's appearance from his window in the Apostolic Palace on Sunday capped an extraordinary week in Rome, and his inauguration Mass on Tuesday will be attended by many heads of state, including the Irish president, Michael D Higgins.

However Ireland is one of the few European countries that does not have a resident ambassador to the Vatican.

This follows the controversial closure of the embassy at the Villa Spada in Rome in November 2011.

At the time, the Irish foreign minister, Eamon Gilmore of the Irish Labour Party, the junior partner in the coalition led by prime minister (Taoiseach) Enda Kenny, cited economic and financial reasons.

Mr Gilmore insisted it had nothing to do with the poor relations between Dublin and the Vatican over the clerical sex abuse scandals.

In July 2011, Enda Kenny launched a blistering attack on the Vatican in the Irish parliament claiming the Cloyne Report into clerical sex abuse had exposed, "an attempt by the Holy See to frustrate an inquiry in a sovereign , democratic republic... as little as three years ago, not three decades ago."

The charge was rejected by an angry Vatican, which recalled its Papal Nuncio from Dublin for a time.

The Villa Spada is now the home of the Irish embassy to Italy and on Friday 15 March ambassador Pat Hennessey hosted an evening reception for St. Patrick's Day.

It was a pleasant occasion but not far beneath the surface there is still deep resentment at Eamon Gilmore's action.

Image caption Eamon Gilmore closed Ireland's Vatican Embassy.

This has not been assuaged by the appointment of David Cooney as a non-resident ambassador with access to the top not enjoyed by other diplomats.

Cooney, who played a key role in negotiating the Good Friday Agreement, visits the Vatican every six weeks and will be part of the Irish delegation led by President Higgins and finance minister Michael Noonan at Pope Francis's inauguration.

Enda Kenny will be in Washington for the Taoiseach's traditional St. Patrick's Day meeting with President Obama in the White House.

A senior Irish Catholic church source said:

''No one is fooled by the economic argument. This was a deliberately intended insult to the church and to the Catholic people by the Labour Party.''

Cardinal Sean Brady pressed the issue at a meeting with Mr Kenny in February.

Father Jim Downey, an Irish Augustinian priest based in Rome, speaks for many who will not go on the record:

"Some people would prefer this was forgotten about but it has not been forgotten. Everyone knows the closure was not for economic reasons. Of course it was connected to the Cloyne Report and all that. The government should be honest about it.''

Will Ireland re-open an embassy to the Holy See?

Those who read the runes of such matters say the answer is yes, and it is likely to happen before the next Irish general election.

The Irish department of foreign affairs accept that a non-resident ambassador is far from ideal. And political leaders like Enda Kenny and Eamon Gilmore may feel they have made their point.

The fact that the UK has expanded its embassy to the Vatican in recent years is cited by those who found the Irish decision hard to fathom, given the relatively small amount of money involved.

Other missions may be opened or expanded as a fig leaf when the time comes, a well-informed observer has said.

That said, Enda Kenny's attack on the Vatican in the Dail did reflect deep public anger, although many considered his words overblown.

A department of foreign affairs spokesperson quoted from a recent parliamentary answer by Mr Gilmore:

''The decision to close the embassy will not be reversed in the immediate term. However, in the context of the budgetary situation, I will continue to review the deployment of our diplomatic resources overseas."

It is thought a new embassy would not be shared with the embassy to Italy at the Villa Spada but rented elsewhere in Rome.