Ireland announced Thursday it is closing its embassies to the Vatican and two other nations, but denied that its deteriorating relations with the Catholic Church played a role in its choice of cuts.
Foreign Minister Eamon Gilmore said Ireland was under grave financial pressure as it tries to slash spending in line with its international bailout last year. He said a review determined that Ireland's diplomatic posts to the Vatican, Iran and Timor Leste offered the least returns in foreign investment.
"The government believes that Ireland's interests with the Holy See can be sufficiently represented by a non-resident ambassador," Gilmore said, suggesting that a diplomat based in another European country would be assigned the Vatican brief too.
In Rome, the Vatican likewise dismissed concerns that the Irish were sending another rebuke to the Catholic Church over its cover-ups of decades of child abuse in Ireland.
"What is important are the diplomatic relations between the Holy See and states, and these aren't in question concerning Ireland," said the Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi.
But Catholic leaders in Ireland expressed dismay and pleaded for an early reversal of the decision. They noted that the Vatican was among the first foreign governments to recognize Irish independence in the 1920s from Britain.
"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," said Cardinal Sean Brady, leader of Ireland's 4 million Catholics.
In July, Prime Minister Enda Kenny condemned the Vatican and accused it of trying to undermine a string of Irish investigations into the scale of child abuse and its concealment. The Vatican published a detailed rebuttal two months later.
Ireland, like many nations, has long maintained two diplomatic posts in Rome: One for the Vatican, the other for Italy. The practice reflects the Vatican's growing insistence since the 1920s that it must be treated diplomatically as a separate state from Italy.
Gilmore says Ireland will move its Italian embassy into the villa currently used by its Vatican staff, a move that could save Irish taxpayers around euro2.4 million ($3.3 million) annually, the cost of its current Italian embassy operation.
Ireland had left its Vatican ambassador post unfilled since June. It has been cutting embassies and diplomatic staff since 2009 as part of the country's struggle to avoid bankruptcy because of a colossal bank-bailout program.
Associated Press writer Nicole Winfield in Rome contributed to this report.