The DUP has missed an opportunity by not meeting Pope Francis on his Irish visit this weekend

Pope John Paul II walking in procession outside the basilica during his visit to the Knock Shrine in Ireland in September 1979. Photo:: PA Wire
Pope John Paul II walking in procession outside the basilica during his visit to the Knock Shrine in Ireland in September 1979. Photo:: PA Wire

On the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President JF Kennedy, in 2013, a friend of mine was among several people who told this newspaper where they were when they heard the terrible news in 1963.

I was surprised that my friend, who was only born in 1956, had such a clear recollection of the event given that he was aged only seven.

He had been sitting on the stairs of his home in Upper Dunmurry Lane when his mum told him.

Then I later realised that I was also aged seven in a incident in which I have a clear memory from my childhood.

It is from September 1979 and the Pope in Ireland. The memory was of John Paul II arriving in Dublin and kissing the ground as he stepped off the plane.

I recall it was a Jumbo Jet, which was still a pretty impressive aircraft in those days.

I also recall that we had builders in our house outside Bangor and that some of them were standing in the room where we had our TV to watch the arrival, and that the atmosphere in the room seemed serious.

As a boy I thought it was an exciting event, this huge global figure sweeping in on his own plane, later to be met by vast crowds.

I did not understand why our neighbours were going down to see him and that we were not, only discovering years later, around the time I became a teenager, that there was such a thing as Catholic or Protestant (such ignorance of designated religion seems to me a common phenomenon among ‘Protestants’).

As a boy I was struck by the reports that a million people had seen the Pope in Phoenix Park and that too seemed astonishing. Only in England, at places like Wembley stadium, did huge events seem to happen (Dublin then, with its McDonalds restaurant on Grafton Street, seemed a glittering city in comparison to Belfast).

Not long after that I was in Dublin with my parents and I remember asking them to drive via Phoenix Park so we could see where this huge event had happened.

When I got older and became aware of politics, and for many years was an angry atheist, I came to associate the 1979 papal visit, and the vast crowds that it attracted, with herd-like superstition and the dominance of the Catholic church.

It became a symbol of why I would not want to see a united Ireland, much preferring Northern Ireland’s links to secular England.

So much has changed in Ireland since that visit almost 40 years ago.

This morning I will travel down to a Dublin, where the influence of the Catholic church has collapsed, to report on the Pope Francis visit.

The so-called cultural Catholicism is still strong in the south, in the same way that cultural Protestantism up here is now stronger than religious version, so today’s crowds will probably still be large.

Perhaps the crowds will be particularly enthusiastic about this visit, in a form of religious backlash against the fall of the church.

On both sides of the border, despite the declines, actual weekly church going is still strong in all the main denominations compared to the rest of the British Isles, and closer to American levels of church going, but nothing like what it was.

This is one of the two key reasons why I think the DUP has missed an opportunity in not sending a senior party member to meet the Pope.

As Christianity in the West slowly but relentlessly declines, some aggressive secular values are prevailing. The speed with which social policies have changed on issues such as same-sex marriage and abortion, and the almost hysterical way in which traditionalists are harangued on those topics, means that Christians at times seem almost to have been browbeaten into not really stating what they think on such important matters.

I wonder how long protections for churches not to embrace such controversial reforms will stay in place, and I fear that some of their right to dissent will be impinged.

So it makes sense increasingly for Catholics and Protestants to work together.

There are of course, as our letters page has shown in recent months, Protestants who consider the Pope to be the literal anti-Christ (as opposed to explaining away such a phrase in the Westminster Confession of Faith as meaning something milder, such as someone who leads people away from Christ).

But there is, I believe, now a much larger number of Christians, of both the two main traditions in Northern Ireland, who are beginning to see each other as allies on cultural, social and religious matters in this secular time.

There are so many political and cultural variables now (such as conservative nationalists, liberal nationalists, conservative unionists, liberal unionists, religious centrists, and so on) that I have wondered in this column if the creation of a Christian Party might be the only way to find a political home for people whose world view is, above all, driven by faith — a faith that is increasingly at odds with, and embattled by, society at large.

But given that there is no sign of such a party, and given that some people in the DUP have made claims about getting some Catholic votes on the basis of their traditional stance on moral and social questions such as abortion, you would think that they would have wanted to further woo such potential support by meeting the Pope.

All the more so given that Pope Francis is such an interesting figure at this time of cultural crossroads.

The second reason I think a senior member of the DUP should have travelled for a papal introduction is the system of government that we have here in Northern Ireland.

It is a dysfunctional one of mandatory coalition in which two contradictory constitutional outlooks have to be in power at all times.

But the fact is that the DUP have bought into that system, however reluctantly, and so they aspire potentially to be leading everyone.

On that basis there is a major imperative on the party to send someone senior to meet the Pope. However badly it would go down with fundamentalists, it ought to be much more palatable than sharing power with past terrorists.

Arlene Foster is on holiday, and for all I know on a holiday that is hard to break, but if it had been an easy holiday to interrupt then this would have been the obvious occasion for which to interrupt it.

I say this not to add to the relentless nationalist pressure on Mrs Foster, which is so deeply hypocritical given the absence of any such unionist pressure on Michelle O’Neill, however appalling the latter’s behaviour (including a typically graceless tweet on Thursday blaming the secretary of state, Karen Bradley, for stalemate which is principally her own party’s fault).

But even so, if the DUP leader had been in Dublin today it would have been a gesture of significance.

• Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter deputy editor