UUP in Belfast is right to do a U-turn and back papal visit

Morning View
Morning View

In a major blunder by the Ulster Unionists in Belfast last year, no councillor from the party supported the notion of a papal visit, making Mike Nesbitt’s claims at liberalism and modernism look foolish.

Now the situation is reversed, and seven UUP councillors have backed an invitation to Pope Francis to the city.

For the DUP, with its much stronger roots in fundamentalist Christianity, to oppose a papal visit is one thing.

For the Ulster Unionists to have done so is another (unless of course they see themselves as no different from the DUP).

This newspaper was clear last year that the time is right for a visit by Pope Francis, if the Vatican and Queen agree.

Things in Northern Ireland have changed utterly since 1979, when Pope John Paul II visited Ireland. There was then, for good reason, deep bitterness among Northern Ireland Protestants of all persuasions – from evangelical to moderate churchgoer to irreligious – about the Republic’s territorial claim on the Province and about the southern establishment ambivalence towards sectarian republican terror (most evident in the failure to extradite IRA killers).

There was also deep unease about the mono-cultural state in the Republic, and the influence of the Catholic church.

Everything is different now. As the Nolan Show BBC/RTE poll showed this week, there are now marked similarities between north and south in outlook on a range of social issues.

The big divide indeed on questions such as euthanasia, same-sex marriage and abortion is between active Christians and non believers (although it is not an absolute divide). Mainstream Protestant believers should look to mainstream Catholics as allies on these issues, amid rapid social change.

The Republic showed belated but huge generosity towards the Queen in 2011 on her visit. It is time for Northern Ireland to reciprocate that generosity towards the Pope and to facilitate him in visiting the island’s ecclesiastical capital, Armagh.

Those Protestants who find such a visit objectionable will of course be free to protest forcefully and peacefully.