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Why it would be a disaster to heed those No Pope Here calls

By Alf McCreary

Published 07/11/2015

Warm welcome: Pope Francis would get a good reception if he travelled to Northern Ireland
Warm welcome: Pope Francis would get a good reception if he travelled to Northern Ireland

Not for the first time, the members of Belfast City Council recently put their ornate gowns, and undergarments, in a silly twist. This week they voted, for the second time, to invite the Pope to Belfast, but, according to this newspaper, there was "controversy, confusion and uproar" in the council chamber.

In other words, the councillors - copying their colleagues at Stormont and elsewhere - were indulging in party politics. Yet, in doing so, were they really representing all the people of this province?

Time and again, the ordinary people seem to be ahead of the politicians, because they live in the real world and not in a political bubble.

If Pope Francis comes to Northern Ireland in 2018, he will receive a warm reception not only from his own flock but from the vast majority of Protestants who will also welcome such a world figure in our midst.

Of course there are the die-hards who will always object to such a visit, and who show how much they are out of step with the modern world.

However, there are two points to be made about a possible Papal visit here: first, it is not yet confirmed, and, second, if the Pope does come north, his first choice will be the ecclesiastical capital Armagh, and maybe also Londonderry, which has made such great strides of late.

Belfast, however, is another matter, where the old hatreds smoulder more deeply and more strongly than in almost any other part of this island.

So in a real sense, the Belfast City Council debate on the Pope's possible visit to Ireland was entirely academic. However, it did show yet again the inability of our politicians to resist dumbing down to their tribal followers.

The Pope has every right to visit the north, and imagine the world media coverage if, like John Paul II, he was unable to come here because of the security and political situation.

These ancient suspicions and hatreds are part of the reason why our Stormont politicians have taken so long to reach an agreement, in the best interests of all.

Yet without mutual trust and a willingness to serve all the people, and not their own narrow interests, the long-term future seems bleak - even if they cobble together some short-term agreement to avoid the collapse of power sharing.

It was this absence of mutual respect and of a shared vision that pitchforked Northern Ireland into the savagery of the Troubles from 1969 onwards. Younger people have no experience of such mayhem, and many others, who experienced the suffering at first hand, have already passed on.

On the same night that the Belfast City Council was having its furious row in the City Hall, the BBC in Northern Ireland broadcast a harrowing documentary about the memories of the nurses who had devoted themselves during the Troubles to bind up broken bodies, or to bring words of comfort to those who were passing into the valley of death.

The programme referred to one of my first books, Survivors, which was about the victims on all sides, and it reminded me painfully of the immense trauma I - and other journalists - had to report almost daily, in our early careers.

Thank God that the worst of this has passed, but much tribal bitterness remains, and the politicians of all parties must rise above this.

How wonderful if in three years time Pope Francis does come to Northern Ireland to bless our peace and to bless us all. It is now time to leave behind the destructive and pointless hatreds of the past.

Belfast Telegraph

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