Belfast Telegraph

It would take a miracle for Pope Francis to visit Northern Ireland

By Alf McCreary

Some years ago there was a gable-wall message in Belfast which stated: 'No Pope here'. Underneath, some wit had scrawled: 'Lucky Pope!'

If Belfast City Council has its way, Pope Francis may indeed be here some time soon, and we would be lucky to get such a visit from this charismatic world figure.

Don't hold your breath, however.

Even though the official invitations from Belfast Council and the Irish Senate need to be taken seriously by the Vatican, there is so much else on the Pope's mind, and Ireland is not exactly at the forefront of international affairs.

People are left wondering whether the idea to invite the Pope to Belfast was an electioneering stunt by an SDLP councillor, or a genuine attempt to bring the head of the Roman Catholic Church to Ireland.

The unionists clearly thought it was a stunt, and, even though they did not want to cause unnecessary offence by opposing the idea, they lacked the grace to rise above the backyard party politics of the city council.

However, by abstaining from voting, the unionist councillors have made it even more difficult for the Pope to visit Belfast, even if a miracle happened and he actually did arrive here.

However, I agree with those who believe that Belfast would be the wrong place for a visit, and that Armagh, as the seat of St Patrick, would be the natural focus for such an historic event.

The former Vatican Secretary to John Paul II told me in Rome that the Pope had been greatly saddened by his inability to visit Armagh during his visit to Ireland in 1979, and he hoped even late in his life that somehow that might still happen.

There was a feeling in the Irish Hierarchy that John Paul's visit to Ireland was not really complete because the security situation had stopped him from going to Armagh.

Indeed one of the first acts of Cardinal Brady during the early days of Pope Benedict was to invite him to Ireland, and even though that opportunity might have lapsed when he amazingly retired, I daresay that a similar invitation to Francis could be arranged quickly if there was even a hint from Rome that it might be accepted.

What puzzles me is why the Pope would want to come to Ireland at this particular time.

The Irish Church is still embroiled in the aftermath of the clerical child sex abuse scandals, and there is nothing here for a Pope simply on a public relations exercise.

Nor is there much to attract him with regard to reconciliation.

Certainly the situation has improved immensely from the very bad old days, but there is still simmering violence, and an evident bloody-mindedness from councillors and MLAs on all sides who just cannot seem to agree on anything.

Every time I see a special BBC Northern Ireland television studio debate I turn down the sound, because the arguments have hardly changed in the past 40, or 400, years.

Sadly, the other debate leading up to the vote in the City Council revealed yet again how religion here is used as a tribal label in the power-play about territory and votes.

Some people might dismiss the Belfast Council's invitation to the Pope as a non-story, and I am inclined to agree with that view.

However, in Northern Ireland you can never rule out anything – except our continued bickering.

If the Pope could come here and knock a few heads together, so much the better for all of us.

Belfast Telegraph

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