A leading Ulster Unionist councillor has explained his party’s reasons for backing a proposed papal visit to Belfast - reversing the unanimous lack of support from UUP councillors last year.
Jim Rodgers was one of seven Ulster Unionists who supported a motion in favour of inviting Pope Francis to the city which was passed by Belfast City Council earlier this week.
When a similar motion was brought before the chamber in April 2014 there was no support from any of the unionist members.
On that occasion all of the unionist councillors abstained, with none voting against, although many were outspoken in their opposition to extending an invitation to the Vatican.
At the time, Cllr Rodgers said he had decided to abstain after “giving the issue a lot of thought”.
He said: “I am concerned at the likelihood of trouble on our streets...and I don’t want any religious or civic leader coming here to find themselves offended and see violence on a large scale”.
Speculation has been mounting that the Pope could visit Dublin in 2018 for the 9th World Meeting of Families - increasing the possibility that a trip north of the border could be added to his schedule.
At the full council meeting last Monday evening Cllr Rodgers and his party colleagues voted in favour with the motion passed 38-1.
Both the DUP and PUP abstained with only Jolene Bunting of the TUV registering her opposition.
Speaking to the News Letter on Friday, the former Lord Mayor said the UUP support was a “gesture of good will,” but that he didn’t believe a Papal visit to anywhere in Northern Ireland was on the cards unless the Queen issued an invitation as head of state.
“I am on record as saying I have nothing against the pope coming to Northern Ireland.
“Whilst I am Protestant and a unionist, I realise that there are those here who are a different religion and obviously he is the head of their church,” he said.
“We are trying to improve community relations and to bring people together. Not for one moment do we think he will come to Belfast - we just don’t see that happening - but we didn’t want people to think it was because this is the head of the Roman Catholic church that we were just opposing [the invitation].”
Cllr Rodgers added: “I’ve already said that Armagh, the ecclesiastical capital, where you have got both cathedrals, could well be where a visit would take place if he did come here.”