Seanad Éireann - Volume 116 - 09 July, 1987

Adjournment Matter. - Austrian President's Vatican Visit.

Mr. Norris: The matter I wish to raise on the Adjournment is the attendance of senior Irish diplomats, including the Irish Ambassador, at a reception on 25 June in the Vatican for President Waldheim of Austria. I attempted to raise this matter under Standing Order 29 on the morning of 25 June when there was a possibility that some intervention might take place by the Minister for Foreign Affairs requiring the ambassador not to attend, as happened in a number of other countries. You, a Chathaoirligh ruled that this was out of order, quite properly. I would like to express my gratitude to you for your courtesy in that ruling and for your assistance to me in finding a proper method of introducing this matter which I consider very important for discussion before the House so that the Minister, in this case the Minister, of State to whom [2158] I am very grateful for attending this evening, would have the opportunity to respond.

At the outset I wish to say I have no intention whatever of attempting to criticise the Pope as a spiritual leader. He is one of the world's great spiritual leaders and it would be an impertinence for me to criticise him in any sense in that role. It would also be deeply offensive to the vast majority of Irish people. I should like it to be noted at the outset that there is no intention whatever on my part to deliver this kind of insult. However, the Pope is also a Head of State. He has a political role. He acts as a political figure and in this case there is no doubt whatever that his initiative or his reaction to proposals that emerged from Vienna was seen by the Austrian Government as a very direct and very clear political situation and it was responded to by the representatives of this country as a political situation. It is only with that dimension that I intend to deal.

Had Dr. Waldheim intended merely to visit the Vatican on a pastoral quest, it would have caused no concern whatever that Pope John Paul II should hear his confession, but this was a different matter. This is a matter which clearly caused concern. I have here a scrapbook compiled, 14 pages long, every single page filled with reports in the Irish newspapers, first, heralding this proposed visit, giving quite clearly the reasons of the Austrian Government for so anxiously negotiating and seeking it, and then the reaction throughout the world to the advance publicity of that visit, the visit itself and the aftermath. It is very instructive, indeed, to look at this process.

I note that shortly before the Waldheim visit was announced in a report in the Sunday Independent of 14 June 1987, it was stated that there was no intention that this country should invite President Waldheim to visit. I welcome that unofficial assurance and I trust that this evening the Minister will be able to copperfasten that assurance and reassure the Irish people that there will be no intention of inviting Dr. Waldheim to [2159] visit. There is no doubt that he is a highly controversial figure and that the invitation from the Vatican to visit Rome for an audience with the Pope effectively broke what has been referred to in every single newspaper in this country, and most of the newspapers throughout the world, as a blockade, an isolation of the Austrian President.

It is not for me in this House to abuse the privileges of such an occasion by appearing to sit in judgment upon Dr. Waldheim, but it is worth reading into the record of the House the reasons why so many countries, including the European countries and the United States of America, felt it necessary either not to attend this reception at all or to instruct a junior diplomat to attend in place of the Ambassador. The reason is that while Dr. Waldheim has not as yet been found guilty, sufficient doubt has been raised so that the United States Justice Department has reason to believe that sufficient evidence exists that Dr. Waldheim may have assisted or otherwise participated in the persecution of persons because of race, religion, national origin or political opinion. Although a Head of State, he has been placed on a watch list of undesirable aliens whose entry into the United States of America shall be prohibited. The United States of America is not the only country which is clearly sensitive to this issue.

I have before me also a report of the attitude of the Italian Government who were very clearly upset and dismayed by this invitation. The Italian Government made clear, in the days surrounding the Waldheim visit, their disapproval of the occasion by specifically not according to President Waldheim the courtesy of a call on their foreign ministry which is, as the Minister I am sure knows, a traditional conclusion of visits by foreign Heads of State to the Vatican. The Italian Government very clearly and very deliberately snubbed Dr. Waldheim and this, despite the fact that the Austrian Foreign Minister, Mr. Alois Mock announced to the press that the invitation of Dr. Waldheim was an exceptional gesture of the Holy [2160] Father to the President. It was, indeed, an exceptional gesture and I believe a most unfortunate one.

If you look at the response immediately on the announcement — the headlines were: “Waldheim's Papal Trip Angers Jews,” “Inquiry on Waldheim” — even the Austrian Government felt impelled by the international outcry, the outrage which is echoed here in page after page, to establish an inquiry into the bona fides, the standing of their own President under the chairmanship of a distinguished Swiss military historian, Hans Rudolf Kurtz. As the days built up, increasing doubts grew as to the suitability of the attendance by Irish diplomats at this particular reception for Dr. Waldheim. In a human way, it is very moving to read reports in the newspapers of the reaction of some of those who were most intimately concerned with this tragic period of European history. I quote from The Evening Press of 25 June, the evening after this audience, which said:

The atmosphere was tense and one man whose parents spent time in a concentration camp yelled, “It is useless for the Pope to go to Auschwitz to cry for our dead and then receive this Nazi.”

That is the degree of feeling there was in Europe, in Rome, on that afternoon. That is the kind of feeling unleashed by this visit. I will quote again, this time from The Evening Press:

Italian former concentration camp victims yelling shame, and waving posters bearing the names of Nazi death camps waited at the Vatican for Dr. Waldheim's arrival. Many of the protestors had concentration camp numbers tattooed on their arms.

This is important because, alas, we cannot afford to forget the history of Europe, the tragic history of Europe, in which Austria played a particularly undistinguished role. It is because of the role of Austria as a country that I feel it particularly important that we should be sensitive to receptions for a President [2161] of Austria whose credibility has been so seriously called into question.

I refer to a number of surveys that were carried out. For example, a survey of interviews conducted by the allied occupying forces between 1946 and February 1948 shows that only 42.6 per cent of respondents thought national socialism was a bad idea, and 38.1 per cent of Austrians, between 1946 and 1948, thought that national socialism was actually a good idea. There are even more worrying statistics, because I want to place the position of President Waldheim in a context in terms of his own country and its responsibilities. In 1973 another survey was conducted which asked Austrians if they should feel a special degree of responsibility towards the Jews: 67 per cent said no. In 1976, 83 per cent asked for an end to war crime trials. One wonders why they wished this process of justice to end. Perhaps the explanation comes with the infinitely worrying statistics. In 1982, 77 per cent of Austrians agreed either completely or partly with the statement that the Jews were to a certain degree themselves responsible for mass exterminations. I regret very much to have to tell the Minister that by 1986 this figure had actually gone up, not down. Sympathy for these appalling ideologies is not dying out; it is reawakening. In 1986, 43 per cent of a representative sample said Jews were not Austrians, and a staggering 79 per cent thought the Jews had been at least partly responsible for their own fate.

It seems that there was occasion for us to be at least cautious in appearing to give approval to a Head of State who could be construed as representing this kind of unfortunate trend in European thought which I had hoped we might have put behind us at this stage. I again draw a distinction here between Dr. Waldheim as a man and Dr. Waldheim as a Head of State, because I noted with interest that Vatican officials drew this distinction and said they were not welcoming him as a man, they were welcoming him instead as a functionary of an institution or a State. I am attempting to close off that argument as well by saying that, until [2162] these doubts are resolved, a question mark still exists.

I do not wish to pillory the Austrian people, their nation or their Government because I believe that we are all guilty in this. I remind the Minister that under the Constitution Ireland is defined as a Christian and democratic State. I sometimes wonder, when I hear this phrase so glibly trotted out on all sides in debate, what does it mean, that we are a Christian and democratic State? I speak as somebody who attempts to live as a Christian and to believe as a Christian. Does Christianity, as a result of this clause in the Constitution, inform the conduct of our daily affairs? Does it inform our foreign policy, for example, or are we, like so many other countries, merely mercenary, merely self seeking?

Is there any international standard of morality at all? I sometimes wonder particularly in a case like the question of the audience of President Waldheim, what the Christian response would be in these circumstances, certainly to forgive the individual but not, I am sure, to appear even to condone the kinds of activities of which Dr. Waldheim has been accused. While, there is no secure proof of guilt, there is at least an acknowledgment that at the very minimum he falsified events in his own biography and did not tell the full truth about events that took place during the war.

Lest I should be seen in what I have already said and what I intend to say further to be merely sensitive to the question of the Jewish problem, I should like to remind the House that the activities of which Dr. Waldheim stands accused and whose substance has been attested to by the activities and the response of the United States Justice Department were not only against the Jews but also against Yugoslavian and Greek patriots and partisans, so that any insult towards the Jewish people is also an insult towards the Yugoslavian and Greek Governments. We also must be aware of and sensitive to this problem. We are not isolated from it. We are not cut off. I noted the reply of the Minister, Deputy Lenihan, when questioned about the [2163] appropriateness of this. He replied with easy affableness that there was no problem, a phrase with which I understand his name is associated in the popular view——

Mr. Manning: He invented it.

Mr. Norris: It was singularly inappropriate. We may comfort ourselves that we have little to regret on the question of the European Holocaust but we have because in the past we have been insensitive. I remember with great shame the visit of an otherwise extremely distinguished President of this country, Eamon de Valera, to the German Embassy at the end of the war to express condolence with the German ambassador on the death of Adolf Hitler. I remember also with the greatest regret that in 1943 a former Member of this House actually said — and it is on the record of this House — that Hitler had the right idea about the Jews and that we should learn something from him. None of us has our hands clean. It is a matter in which it behoves us all as human beings and as Christians to be extremely careful.

If we look at the visit itself, it is notable that the newspaper reports emphasised the fact that — and I quote The Irish Times of 26 June:

Ignoring world wide storm of Jewish protest.

I make the point here that I do not believe the protest was exclusively Jewish; it was mounted by persons of conscience all over the world.

— Pope John Paul II yesterday warmly welcomed President Kurt Waldheim of Austria to the Vatican for his first official visit abroad since he was elected a year ago.

The man who until yesterday was being called “the prisoner of Vienna,” because of the reluctance of most countries to receive him, was given the full diplomatic treatment down to the smallest detail of protocol.

It was not just a formal visit. It was, [2164] most unfortunately, a red carpet. I feel strongly — and I know many Irish people feel strongly with me — that it was highly inappropriate for a diplomat of the status of ambassador to be present at this controversial visit. Of course, as a spiritual leader it is perfectly appropriate for the Pope to mix with persons of doubtful reputation. After all the founder of the religion, Jesus Christ, did that as a matter of principle and the present Pope has been remarkably generous in the inclusion of this kind of person in his circle. One remembers also, regrettably, the figure of Archbishop Markincus in this. However, it is of course appropriate for a great spiritual leader to be charitable, but charity of this kind is the province of spiritual leaders. We must be aware of the political repercussions of our action. I must ask the Minister whether it was not surely more appropriate to take the line that other European countries did in either instructing their ambassador to be absent, or that the country should be represented by a less senior diplomat. I note that this was done by many countries, including the United States and Italy. The Minister will have a full list of those countries who took this action. I very much wish that this action had been taken.

I would like the Minister to inform the House why the decision was taken that the ambassador should go. Who took it? Was there a specific reason? Was it intended to reinforce Dr. Waldheim or, as a political decision, was it intended to release this discredited figure once more on to the international stage? If it was I reiterate my belief that it was a great mistake. I look at the aftermath and at 27 June where, in the light of the fact that the Pope intends to make a visit over the next year to the United States of America, all the leading Jewish groups in the United States have decided to boycott that visit which is most unfortunate and regrettable in a situation where perhaps the Pope might have used his influence diplomatically to relieve some of the tensions in the Middle East.

I note that even in Dr. Waldheim's own country of Austria the response on [2165] behalf of the Socialist Party was to ask him to resign. Most worrying of all, look at the flurry of invitations that were subsequently received and where they came from. Almost immediately an announcement was made in the press that Dr. Waldheim was to visit Iran, the country that after the demise of the Nazi regime in Europe has the single most bloody record in abuse of human rights. There is not time for me to read the shameful category of their atrocities into the record. Anybody who wishes it may purchase the briefing document on Iran by Amnesty International. What is the response of this Government? We have an Iranian Embassy here which has recently been expanded. We have also got an office of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, which I welcome. They continually send me briefing documents. I do not wish to open up too controversial an area, but it is noticeable that the Vatican has no diplomatic representation from Israel and that Ireland is the only European Community country that does not have an exchange of ambassadors. This I know is a delicate area but I urge the Minister to take into account this very important fact in a situation where the Waldheim visit came up. It is most important although I will not go into great detail because there is no time and it might be indelicate. I urge the Minister to consider this question of the establishment of proper and full diplomatic relations between this country and the State of Israel. I look forward to his reply in the matter of the diplomatic representation of this country at this most regrettable reception of a Head of State.

Minister of State at the Department of Industry and Commerce (Mr. S. Brennan): I will start by thanking Senator Norris for his extremely articulate contribution. The Government's position is that Ireland maintains good and friendly relations with Austria as a State and will continue to do so. President Waldheim is the democratically elected Austrian Head of State. Our Ambassador in Vienna has presented credentials to President Waldheim. The reception [2166] offered by the Vatican to enable ambassadors accredited to the Holy See to meet President Waldheim on the occasion of his visit to the Vatican on 25 June was in accordance with normal diplomatic protocol. Similarly, in attending the reception, the Irish Ambassador was following normal diplomatic protocol. I should point out that he was one of a large number of ambassadors representing democratic States in doing this.

The Senator mentioned the question of the invitation to which I should respond. In the course of his State visit to Austria last year President Hillery, in accordance with the diplomatic courtesies, normally extended between visiting Heads of State, extended to his host, who was then the Austrian President, Dr. Kirchschlaeger, an invitation to visit Ireland. The then President, that is, Dr. Kirchschlaeger, made a private visit to Ireland in March 1987. I want to inform the House that there are no plans for an official visit to Ireland by President Waldheim. I should also point out that in these matters of invitations between Heads of State, quite a number of these protocol invitations never materialise; some of them do but quite a number do not.

The Pope, as the Senator said, is also a Head of State. His invitation to President Waldheim obviously was an invitation to another Head of State. It just struck me, as the Senator spoke, that Austria did not exist, as such, as a State during the period of Nazi outrages involving that country. Indeed, it was one of the first States to be swallowed up by the Hitler regime. It is a State that was established anew after the war. It is a member of the community of democratic States with which Ireland and all other democratic States have maintained diplomatic relations for many decades.

I must say, in the strongest possible way, that the Government, like Senator Norris, will not engage in pillorying the Austrian nation, its people or their State. It is for that reason that Ireland maintains good and friendly relations with Austria and will continue to do so. I should also [2167] stress to the House that the formal institution of the State must deal with formal and legal structures and legal institutions as it finds them. It does not have the luxury of dealing with these matters on an individual, personal or emotional level. We must deal with them in a formal, structured way. We must deal with the institutions as they present themselves to the House.

[2168] There are no plans for an official visit to Ireland by President Waldheim. Ireland will continue to maintain good and friendly relations with Austria. I look forward to us continuing on that line.

The Seanad adjourned at 6.45 p.m. until 2.30 p.m. on Tuesday, 14 July 1987.