Pope Francis is set to receive an invitation to visit Belfast – although the move received precisely zero support from the city’s unionist councillors.
The chamber at City Hall was split down the middle last night over the plan to ask the pontiff to pay a visit to the city, after the Seanad in Dublin voted earlier in the year to invite him to the Republic.
The motion had been proposed by SDLP councillor Pat McCarthy, and although it received a unanimous vote in favour from nationalists and the Alliance Party, the idea received no backing from the unionist benches – although none went so far as to vote against the move.
Instead the entire contingent – including the DUP, UUP and PUP – abstained, allowing the motion to pass 30 votes to zero.
Introducing his motion, councillor McCarthy had told the chamber: “Francis is a man of deep faith who brings with him a sense of hope, integrity and community.
“The flame of hope that was sparked by the Good Friday Agreement has dwindled, but it is not dead.
“It is the duty of all of us to rekindle it. We’re faced with a clear choice – we can play to the crowds, seek cheap electoral benefits and continue to allow our politics to be stuck, or we can choose to free ourselves, free our society, and finish the job.”
There had previously been suggestions of a risk of trouble at such a visit, but councillor McCarthy said: “No part of this island, or this city, should be a no-go zone for anyone, and that includes the pontiff.”
However, Dr John Kyle, speaking for the PUP, rose to his feet and branded the motion “unnecessary, inappropriate and presumptuous”.
He said that his party is in favour of civil and religious liberties, had respect for the pope’s support for the poor, and would not object to him coming to Northern Ireland – but that it was not the place of the council to ask.
“It really is the place of Her Majesty the Queen and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to issue such an invitation,” he said.
Councillor Lee Reynolds, for the DUP, questioned the fond words which had been offered about Pope Francis and poured cold water on the idea of an invitation, telling the councillors that the suggestion was simply a piece of “SDLP electioneering”.
Echoing Dr Kyle, he also said they had “no authority” to make such an invitation, and that this right lay “with the national government and head of state, Her Majesty the Queen”.
The motion ignored established protocols, he said, and therefore is “hardly a respectful approach”.
He went on to tell councillors that the glowing portrait of the pope which the chamber had heard is also “not a description which all can subscribe to”.
Some would object on doctrinal grounds, while others may do so because of “deeply traumatic experiences in the institutions of the church”.
The chamber had heard when past pontiff Pope John Paul visited the Republic, he had begged all those on the island of Ireland to renounce violence – and councillor Reynolds said this contrasted with SDLP support for having the name of IRA member Raymond McCreesh on a Newry children’s playpark.
Councillor Jim Rodgers for the UUP repeated previously-stated objections that the city still harboured sectarianism and paramilitary activity, and was not an “appropriate location” for him.
“You don’t want to bring someone here to embarrass them, or to be embarrassed,” he said, adding he could never recall the council having extended an invitation to the Queen, or to any other world leader in the past.
Sinn Fein’s Jim McVeigh backed the visit, telling the chamber: “We don’t need anybody else’s permission – we don’t need to bow down before the Queen.”
Councillor McCarthy sounded downcast as he was asked to sum up ahead of the vote.
Declaring himself “saddened” by some of the views he had heard, he reminded councillors that the story of the meeting would go around the world, and many would see that some in Belfast still remain “stuck in the past”.
Afterwards, he said: “Hopefully tomorrow (Wednesday) a letter will be prepared and sent to the Papal nuncio, and there will be one going up to Stormont, up to the Assembly, to ask them to invite Pope Francis to Northern Ireland.”
The pope is expected to meet the Queen in Rome later this week, and councillor McCarthy added: “Maybe Her Majesty the Queen could deliver that when she meets Pope Francis on Thursday.”