News Letter reporter Niall Deeney spent the day in Coleraine to gauge the mood amongst Protestants ahead of the visit of Pope Francis to Ireland
Protestants and unionists on the streets of Coleraine appeared to be mostly indifferent towards this weekend’s Papal visit to Ireland, with few expressing concern about the prospect of their Churches’ leaders meeting with Pope Francis.
The News Letter sought the general reaction of Protestants and unionists on what the Pope’s visit means for them, on DUP leader Arlene Foster’s decision to decline an invitation to attend, and the willingness of leaders of both the Church of Ireland and the Presbyterian Church in Ireland to meet with Pope Francis in Dublin, as well as the prospect of the Pope visiting this side of the border.
The general reaction to the Pope’s visit was mostly one of indifference amongst those willing to share their views with the News Letter, with all but a few expressing no concern whatsoever about the willingness of Protestant Church leaders to attend.
While that was the predominant view expressed on the streets of Coleraine, it wasn’t shared universally.
Alan Mulholland, from Bushmills, was in Coleraine for the day with his wife.
“Arlene Foster shouldn’t go near it,” he said. “The Presbyterian Moderator shouldn’t go near it, and the Archbishop of Armagh shouldn’t either. I’m not a Presbyterian, I’m Church of Ireland, and in my opinion neither of them should go near it.”
Asked for his view on the significance of the Pope’s visit for Protestants generally, Mr Mulholland said: “None whatsoever.”
Sam Moore, a retired Presbyerian who lives in a rural area near Londonderry, said he likes to be “open minded”.
“It doesn’t really have any significance for me — the man is coming for the Catholic people,” he added. “At the same time, I have no objection to him coming.”
He continued: “There is no reason why any leader of any religious group shouldn’t speak with or meet with the leader of any other religious group. You have to keep an open mind about these things, provided it is not an out-and-out terrorist.”
Mr Moore added: “It is words and that we live by, and nobody should be frightened of words.”
John O’Neill, a 68-year-old Presbyterian from Coleraine, said that while it was Arlene Foster’s “personal choice” to decline the invitation, he believes it may have cost her votes had she decided to attend.
“I believe she is not attending because she wants to keep votes. I believe it would have cost her.”
Mr O’Neill also reflected on the differences between this Papal visit to Ireland and Pope John Paul II’s visit back in 1979.
“It was the height of the Troubles last time and it is different now,” he said.
“The normal Protestant people in Northern Ireland aren’t concerned about Church politics and just want to get on with their lives.”
Nicola Taylor, who is from Portrush but now lives in England, was in Coleraine visiting old friends.
She said she was pleased to see Protestant Church leaders willing to meet with Pope Francis: “Because I’m not living here, when I come back you can see that things have changed quite a lot. I think it is probably a good thing that they (Presbyterian Moderator Dr Charles McMullen and Archbishop of Armagh Dr Richard Clarke) are happy to meet with the Pope.”
She added: “The politicians could learn something from the religious leaders.”
Edwina Forsythe, from Ballyclare, was visiting Coleraine on a shopping trip with her daughter. “It’s a shame that he couldn’t come to Northern Ireland,” she said. “To me, the Pope is just another minister of a Church. I happen to be a Protestant, he happens to be a Catholic.”
She added: “It’s a shame that Arlene said she couldn’t go.”
Martha McMullan, a pensioner from Articlave near Coleraine, said: “It doesn’t matter to me at all. It doesn’t annoy me one bit.”
She continued: “I have friends that are Catholic, and I suppose if it makes them happy, I am happy for them. I would have no problem with him coming to Northern Ireland.”
See Ben Lowry, page 11