Comment - Warren Little - Why unionist leaders should support an invitation to the Pope

Published: 10 Apr 2014 15:300 comments

When word went round of a motion to invite the Pope to Belfast, the PR bods in the unionist parties must have pricked up their ears. ‘Right. Here’s an easily avoidable banana skin if ever I saw one.’

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Or at least they ought to have done. Maybe they were on holiday or something...

A Pope last visited this island in 1979. ‘I wish to speak to all men and women engaged in violence,’ said Pope John Paul, addressing a million people in Drogheda. ‘On my knees I beg you, turn away from the path of violence and return to the ways of peace… Further violence in Ireland will only drag down to ruin the land you claim to love and the values you claim to cherish’.

No argument there, and I expect the current Pope’s message would be no less peace-loving. And as far as I know he has never stated an opinion either way on the question of our sovereignty.

So here we have a golden, gilt-edged, how-could-it-possibly-go-wrong opportunity for the unionist leadership to step beyond the traditional tribal boundary. God knows they don’t get many, because most other calls for them to ‘reach out’ present genuine ideological barriers: Unionists can’t support an Irish tricolour at the City Hall because that would undermine the constitutional position; Unionists can’t support an amnesty for OTRs because that undermines the rule of law; Unionists can’t accept outright bans on Orange parades because that undermines the freedom of expression. There are exceptions and examples of hypocrisy of course, but generally speaking concessions on those issues presents too large a leap for unionists’ deep-running political raison d’être.

In contrast, a Papal visit presents no genuine ideological concerns whatsoever. If unionism is to appeal outside its Protestant base it has to do so by strength of policy and confident pluralism, rather than the backs-to-the-wall reactions of a closed and depleting old circle. Surely, then, it could muster a little warmth towards an idea that would mean so much to half the population?

Not just because it’s the right thing to do. Not just because it would actually help shore up Northern Ireland’s place in the UK. But also because the majority of the existing unionist base would welcome an invitation to the Pope, as an empathetic symbol to the Catholics they mix with every day. Merely reflecting this majority view is the easiest form of leadership.

Of course, there are a minority who would try to cause trouble for the sake of it; rebels seeking a cause and criminals seeking a defence. The solution is to apply a stronger form of leadership, to steer these people towards a more principled stance rather than pander to their irrational fears.

Alas, with the motion to invite the Pope to Belfast duly before the Council, unionists made a complete hames of it. The UUP’s Jim Rogers was the first out of the blocks, opposing a visit, apparently, on the basis that it would give those trouble makers something to make trouble with. Where, you might ask, is the concept of leadership in that? Neither reflecting the majority view nor steering the minority. Mr Rogers did, I should make clear, emphasise that he was ‘not anti-Pope’ and that the Pope could visit other parts of Northern Ireland. But any PR type worth his salt would realise that the message people receive, regardless, is the old war cry No Pope Here. Peter Robinson was predictably mean, pouring scorn on the whole idea before taking a petulant ‘he can come if he wants’ approach. Then he reminded us that he was Protestant (oh really?) so he had ‘no need or desire’ to meet the Pope, ignoring the fact that he’s meant to be First Minister to all citizens of this place. Finally the UUP woke up and issued a very good statement saying they would be ‘happy’ for the Pope to visit. Nonetheless they weren’t happy enough, it seems, to support the motion. All the unionist parties abstained.

Oh you naive fool, I can hear some unionists tell me. This proposal was just a stunt, they say, to which my obvious answer is that they’ve fallen for it. Or we hear ‘it wouldn’t be safe’, which is strange, because the Royals defy the security threat quite often. Other reasoning is ‘we abstained because proper order means that only the Queen, not the Council, should invite the Pope here’. So did they propose an amendment, to ask the Queen to issue an invitation? No.

The quiet majority of unionists are a magnanimous sort. They live by ecumenical generosity in their everyday lives. On the public stage, however, circumstances (whether contrived or not) rarely lend themselves to this side of unionism being shown. When the opportunity does arise, fringe opinion and a fear of the noisy minority are allowed to take prominence.

It is the task of unionist leaders to take these issues by the scruff of the neck and think strategically. They must learn the difference between consensus and concession, because not everything proposed by a nationalist party is automatically bad for the Union.

As for the PR, as Neil Hannon of this parish sang, ‘fortune depends on the tone of your voice’.

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