- The Vatican says its diplomatic relations with Ireland are not at issue
- Ireland is financially strapped, and says the closures are cost-cutting measures
- Its foreign minister insists the Vatican closure is unrelated to the priest-abuse controversy
- That embassy yields "no economic return," says the government
Financially-strapped Ireland announced its intent Thursday to close embassies in the Vatican and Iran, explaining it was not worthwhile to keep them open especially given its own dire economic straits.
Ireland also will close its representative office in Timor Leste, formerly known as East Timor, according to a statement from the nation's department of foreign affairs and trade.
"No area of government expenditure can be immune from the need to implement savings," the Irish government said. "Today's decision follows a review of overseas missions ... which gave particular attention to the economic return of bilateral missions."
With Greece and Portugal, Ireland received a substantial bailout as one of the euro zone's most lackluster economies. The crippling cost of the Irish government's bailout of its banks during the recent recession spurred Dublin's own financial crisis and the 85 billion-euro ($118 billion) loan package from the European Union, International Monetary Fund and individual European nations that was brokered late last year.
That bailout agreement mandated significant government cuts, which the Irish government cited as the reason for the embassy closures.
Still, the decision to close the Vatican mission -- "one of Ireland's oldest," and symbolically significant given the high percentage of Roman Catholics in the northwest European country -- raised questions, given the ongoing controversy over sexual abuses by priests in Ireland.
Specifically, the Cloyne report -- published in July and investigating abuses in the diocese of Cloyne, which is near the southern city of Cork -- prompted a biting attack on the Church by Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny.
Addressing lawmakers earlier this year, Kenny claimed the report exposed the Vatican as trying to hinder an inquiry into child sex abuse for its own benefit and said it revealed the "dysfunction, the disconnection, the elitism that dominate the culture of the Vatican to this day."
He said, "The law of the land should not be stopped by a crozier or a collar," referring to the hooked staff held by Catholic bishops during religious services and the collar worn by priests.
The Vatican responded to the criticism by Kenny and other Irish lawmakers by recalling its envoy to Ireland, Archbishop Giuseppe Leanza. It also questioned the conclusions drawn by investigators as to the Church's approach to dealing with complaints of abuse by priests.
On Thursday night, Irish Foreign Minister Eamon Gilmore insisted the decision to close the embassy in the Vatican had nothing to do "at all with the controversy earlier this year."
"This was part of a review of expenditures we carried out," he told reporters outside a government building in Dublin.
The Irish government, specifically, said in its statement that the embassy in the Vatican "yields no economic return" for Ireland. A "non-resident ambassador" now will oversee Ireland's interests in the Vatican, a small independent enclave surrounded by the Italian capital of Rome.
"We're not breaking off diplomatic relations with the Vatican," said Gilmore. "Diplomatic relations (with the Vatican) are very important."
The Vatican also played down suggestions of a rift, saying any state had the choice whether or not to have an ambassador resident in Rome.
"What is important are diplomatic relations between the Holy See and the States, and these are not at issue with regard to Ireland," it said in a statement.
But Cardinal Sean Brady, in a statement released late Thursday, voiced his "profound disappointment" about the Irish government's move.
"This decision seems to show little regard for the important role played by the Holy See in international relations and of the historic ties between the Irish people and the Holy See over many centuries," Brady said.
Economics -- and not politics, even with the West's teetering relationship with Iran -- similarly was given as the reason for the closure of Ireland's embassy in Tehran, which opened in 1976.
"Regrettably, trade volumes with Iran have fallen short of expectations," the Irish government said in its statement.
The government said it no longer it was "necessary" to maintain its Timor Leste mission, given the "substantial progress" in that southeast Asian country.
Dublin did not rule out other embassy and consulate closings, while also stating that new ones could open. The aim, the government said, is to "ensure that (a mission) reflects our present-day needs and yields value for money."