ROME – Irish Ambassador to the Holy See Frances Collins has praised what she said is a strong relationship between Ireland and the Holy See despite historic tensions with the Catholic Church, saying they share several key foreign policy and humanitarian priorities.

In an interview with Crux, Collins not only highlighted joint collaboration with the Vatican on issues such as multilateralism and nuclear non-proliferation, but she also outlined her government’s stance on the current wars in Gaza and in Ukraine.

She stressed the need for Russia to negotiate a “meaningful and sustainable peace,” and called for immediate access to humanitarian aid in Gaza to avoid famine.

Asked about Pope Francis’s controversial “white flag” remark in a recent interview, suggesting that Ukraine should have the “courage” to negotiate, Collins voiced her conviction that when the pope speaks about any conflict, “he seeks to draw attention to the enormous suffering that ordinary people face as a result of war,” which she said ought to be everyone’s first priority.

She also called for the release of all Israeli hostages still being held by Hamas, she spoke about the role of churches in the ongoing Northern Ireland peace process, and she also touched on the country’s clerical abuse scandals.

Please read below for excerpts of Crux’s interview with Ambassador Frances Collins:

Crux: Ireland has just observed its National Day, which is also the feast of Saint Patrick in the Catholic Church. As Ambassador to the Holy See, do you believe that the fact that these celebratory occasions fall on the same day gives Ireland and the Holy See a particular bond?

Collins: Certainly, I think it does. And this was very much symbolized this year when visiting Minister Mary Butler T.D. presented Pope Francis with a bowl of shamrock at the General Audience on Wednesday. The shamrock, a three-leaf clover, is a national symbol of Ireland. Legend has it that St. Patrick used the shamrock to explain the Holy Trinity to the Irish people. The tradition of wearing Shamrock on Saint Patrick’s Day dates back to the early 18th century.

Our St. Patrick’s Day celebrations are an important time here for the Embassy. It is an invaluable opportunity to jointly reflect on and deepen our bilateral relationship with the Holy See and to exchange with our friends in the Secretariat of State on the many pressing foreign policy issues of the day. It is also an opportunity for us to honor the enormous contribution of Irish religious men and women to the Church, and the rich historical and cultural legacy of our religious community here in Rome and the world over.

Ireland and the Catholic Church have had their difficulties over the years. How would you describe relations now, and what are some areas of joint collaboration and interest?

I would describe the relationship as strong. Pope Francis visited Ireland in 2018, when Ireland hosted the World Meetings of Families. Pope Francis also spent four months in Ireland at the Jesuit Institute at Milltown, so he has personal memories of Ireland and the Irish people. I think he holds a special place in his heart for Ireland and in particular, when it comes to supporting peace on the island. Last year, when we marked the 25th Anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, he encouraged us to continue working to complete the vision, so that all people on the island can enjoy the fruits of peace.  He also encourages us to share our experiences of peace-making with other countries that continue to endure conflict.

We are continuing to come to terms with the pain and suffering of abuse in the Church in Ireland. It serves as a reminder of our failure to live up to our ideals and values as church, state and society. Having a strong relationship with the Holy See and the Church in Ireland is important, but our shared priority must be to listen to what is being asked of us by the survivors and ultimately to show that we have heard and understood the survivors by together moving forward with the concrete actions they are asking us to take.

Despite the celebratory nature of March 17, there are many places around the world that are enduring the difficulty of war, including the ongoing wars in Ukraine and Gaza, both of which are having enormous international repercussions. What is Ireland’s position on these conflicts?

Ireland has a clear and principled position on these conflicts. We have demanded accountability internationally for Russia’s illegal invasion and we are one of the strongest supporters of Ukraine’s path to EU membership. To date, we have granted temporary protection to over 100,000 Ukrainians in Ireland. Two years on from the launch of Russia’s full-scale invasion, Ireland and the EU are committed to continuing our support for Ukraine for as long as it takes.

We condemned outright Hamas’s terrorist attack of 7 October and have called at every juncture for all hostages in Gaza to be released unconditionally. We have also strongly argued, since the early weeks of the conflict, for upholding international humanitarian law, for a humanitarian ceasefire and for sustained humanitarian assistance for over 2 million desperate civilians in Gaza. We urgently need a comprehensive political pathway to allow Palestinians and Israelis to live side-by-side in peace.

Pope Francis recently drew international criticism for implying in an interview that it is perhaps time for Ukraine to raise a ‘white flag’ and open to negotiations. What was your government’s reaction to this statement from Pope Francis?

Ireland is fully committed to the core principles enshrined in the UN Charter. This is the basis of our foreign policy positions on all issues, including Ukraine.

It is deeply regrettable that Russia has not demonstrated a willingness to negotiate a meaningful and sustainable peace. Last week marked ten years since the illegal annexation of Crimea and Sevastopol by Russia. It has consistently escalated military action over ten years, in spite of multiple written agreements. In our view, it is up to Ukraine to determine the terms, conditions and timeline for any peace agreement. Ireland supports Ukraine’s initiative for a comprehensive, just and lasting peace, and urges all states that believe in the importance of respect for international law to also support the Peace Formula.

More broadly, there is an understanding on our part that when Pope Francis speaks on Russia’s war in Ukraine, and indeed on all conflicts, he seeks to draw attention to the enormous suffering that ordinary people face as a result of war and conflict. Protecting civilians in conflict – all civilians in conflict – everywhere – must be our highest priority.

In terms of the ongoing war in Gaza, Pope Francis and his top aides have been vocal in calling for the return of Israeli hostages, but they have also called Israel’s retaliation disproportionate. In your view, has Israel’s reaction been disproportionate? What would it take to achieve a ceasefire at this point, in your view?

It is both welcome and very significant that both the European Union and the United States have unequivocally called for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire this week. This was the clear message from the European Council this week. Against the backdrop of catastrophic situation in Gaza, including shocking warnings of imminent famine, we must ensure that this is a game changing moment in efforts to secure an immediate ceasefire, the unconditional release of hostages and a sustained scale-up of humanitarian assistance.

Full, rapid, safe and unhindered humanitarian access into and throughout the Gaza Strip, especially via land, is absolutely essential. There is no alternative to this if we want to avoid mass hunger. This is clearly Israel’s responsibility under international humanitarian law. The European Council has also urged the Israeli government not to undertake a ground operation in Rafah and stated clearly that the services UNRWA provides in Gaza and across the region are essential. It is very welcome that several important partners have resumed their funding to UNRWA.

There is also an ongoing peace process in Northern Ireland. What role can the various churches in the area play in helping this process move forward?

The Catholic and Protestant Churches played an important role in the mediation and preparing the ground for the successful negotiation of the Good Friday Agreement. Individual Catholic and Protestant clergy acted as negotiators between paramilitary groups and political representatives, throughout the conflict. Equally important, though perhaps less well known, is the contribution of Catholic sisters, Presbyterian, Methodist and Church of Ireland women to these processes as well as their important work in facilitating inter community dialogue at the grassroots level.  With hindsight, we now see that without the work of these priests, reverends, sisters and religious women many potential avenues for dialogue may have failed or not even opened in the first place.

The work of churches continues today, as they support and guide communities across Northern Ireland navigating the very serious challenges of living in a post-conflict society, and this work remains invaluable. The churches remain particularly important voices as we seek to advance and embed reconciliation. Indeed, last year together with the British Ambassador to the Holy See Chris Trott, I was delighted to welcome the Group of Church Leaders Ireland to Rome. It was an opportunity to recognize their enormous collective contribution to the peace process but also to hear from them about the ongoing challenges and how they continue to encourage political leaders to take the necessary steps needed to secure the vision of the Good Friday Agreement.

When it comes to international affairs, Pope Francis has been a frequent advocate of multilateralism, and he has also advocated for a strengthening of the United Nations. What are your views on the pope’s positions on these issues? What ought to be done to enhance the role of multilateralism and the UN in today’s social and political context?

Like Pope Francis, Ireland is deeply committed to strengthening and protecting the multinational system. This includes undertaking the necessary reforms to ensure that the United Nation is fit for purpose to meet the many pressing global challenges we face today. We have taken an active role in discussions on this issue including in the context of the upcoming Summit of the Future.

During our recent UN Security Council tenure, we championed reform of the Council, and we remain closely involved in negotiations underway to reform and enlarge the Security Council. We would like to see a more representative, more inclusive, more effective, more transparent UN Security Council and indeed one that is more accountable in its actions. We have also joined many other countries in calling for the abolition of the veto rights conferred on the five permanent members of the Council. We are also working to encourage greater Security Council efforts on early warning and conflict prevention, as well as a more open and interactive relationship between the Security Council, the broader UN membership and civil society.

Pope Francis has also repeatedly called for not just nuclear disarmament, but for an end to the global arms trade. Are these shared priorities for Ireland and the Holy See? How can your states work together in advancing the cause of disarmament?

Yes, disarmament, non-proliferation and arms control are one of highest shared foreign policy priorities between Ireland and the Holy See. In fact, we have history of sending Ambassadors to the Holy See who have worked in this area of diplomacy. Both myself and my predecessor worked in our Disarmament and Non Proliferation Unit in Dublin before coming to the Holy See.

Nuclear disarmament is one of Ireland’s five signature foreign policy priorities. This goes back to the early years of our UN Membership when our then Foreign Minister Frank Aiken put forward a series of resolutions which became known as the ‘Irish Resolutions’ which led ultimately to the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty, the NPT. The NPT has played an essential part in the maintenance of international peace and security for over 50 years.

Throughout his pontificate Pope Francis has sought to advance the cause of nuclear disarmament; Pope Francis became the first Pope to condemn explicitly not only the use of nuclear weapons but also “the threat of their use, as well as their very possession.”

The NPT remains the cornerstone of the disarmament and non-proliferation framework. It is worth recalling that this Treaty was negotiated at a time of severe international tension, when the widespread proliferation of nuclear weapons seemed inevitable. However, the international community came together and recognised the importance, and necessity, of achieving a world free from these terrible weapons. This can serve as a reminder that substantial progress can, and has, been made in difficult geopolitical circumstances, for the benefit of all.

Ireland and the Holy See are proud members of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), which reinforces the disarmament framework. Addressing a key legal question, the TPNW is the first international instrument to comprehensively ban nuclear weapons. The commitment to achieve a nuclear-weapon-free world is incumbent on all states – nuclear-weapon and non-nuclear-weapons states alike have a stake, a voice and an obligation to achieve disarmament.

The Catholic Church is a leading provider of humanitarian aid globally through its various charitable organizations, especially in natural disasters and conflicts. How can Ireland and the Holy See collaborate in ensuring that needy populations, such as the people of Ukraine and Gaza, get the assistance they need?

One of the central areas in our collaboration with the Church is in the implementation of development and humanitarian assistance programmes. Through our Irish Aid programme, we directly support the work of Trócaire, the development agency of the Irish Catholic Church and a member of the Caritas Internationalis family, and Misean Cara, the umbrella organisation of Irish Missionaries. These organisations received the second and third highest levels of funding of our Irish Aid NGO partners respectively.

These partnerships are invaluable, as they enable us to reach those most affected by conflict and crisis through the Church’s extensive network. The Church and missionaries who serve in these areas are embedded in local communities, and so we can respond to the most urgent humanitarian needs of these communities and to empower and build the resilience of these communities in the longer term.

In terms of the situation in Ukraine and Gaza we continue to call for full, safe and unhindered humanitarian access in both cases and indeed in all situations of humanitarian need across the world.

Ireland was one of the first countries to respond with significant humanitarian assistance in the first days of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and continues to support people most impacted by the war including women, children, the elderly and those in front line regions.

In Gaza, we have provided €40 million in humanitarian assistance in response to the suffering caused by the conflict since last October. Through Ireland’s Rapid Response Initiative, we have also provided 50 tonnes of relief supplies, distributed to 1,500 families in Gaza, in partnership with Trócaire and Catholic Relief Services. Plans are also in place for the provision of further supplies through the Rapid Response Initiative in the coming weeks.

Along with a number of other States, Jordan has been leading on the organisation of air drops of essential supplies into Gaza. We are currently working with Jordan on a possible Irish contribution to this this multinational effort, with supplies that we have already pre-positioned in the region. However, air drops must not distract from the urgent need to dramatically scale up the level of humanitarian assistance entering Gaza by road. There is no alternative to full, safe and unhindered humanitarian access to and within Gaza if mass hunger is to be avoided.

Follow Elise Ann Allen on X: @eliseannallen