Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 28 December 2014

How Holyrood no-show exposes thin veneer of Stormont coalition

“Your Majesty's Government and the government of Ireland, together with the political, religious and civil leaders of Northern Ireland, have helped give birth to a peaceful resolution of the conflict there .

I encourage everyone involved to continue to walk courageously together on the path marked out for them towards a just and lasting peace.” — Pope Benedict XVI in Edinburgh

Why didn’t the First Minister of Northern Ireland join his counterparts from Scotland and Wales in greeting the Pope at Holyrood House last Thursday?

Why was the new Northern Ireland left totally unrepresented at such a defining moment in the relationship between the British Protestant tradition and the Catholic world?

Both the First and deputy First Minister had an opportunity to demonstrate their support for Stormont’s shared future document, only recently endorsed for publication.

However, neither of them proved politically man enough to recognise the historic enormity of the Edinburgh gathering and they should not be allowed to escape censure.

Opening an office for the New York Stock Exchange in Belfast is important for the economy of Northern Ireland, but not so important that surely someone from the Stormont Executive could have been there on our behalf.

One First Minister stayed away, while his predecessor, Ian Paisley, only reminded us of the roots of his fame with his placards of protest.

If I were a Roman Catholic, I might feel rather insulted that the First Minister of Northern Ireland could not bring himself to represent me at Holyrood House.

Mr Robinson missed the moment but so, too, did Martin McGuinness. His non-attendance was no great surprise, given the adherence of Sinn Fein to an increasingly outdated anti-British ideology. He offered the limp excuse that he would gladly greet the Pope if he came to Ireland.

I would like to have been a fly on the wall of the Office of First and deputy First Minister when the Papal visit came up for discussion.

“What do think, Martin? I take it you’ll not be going?”

“Oh, you know my position, Peter. I would certainly like to shake hands with the Pope, but no way; not with Queen Elizabeth and all those Scottish soldiers around. Can you see me standing for God Save the Queen, Peter? But you could go, couldn’t you?”

“If truth be told, Marty, one bit of me says I should be there, but another says I have enough troubles to worry about already without being pictured shaking hands with Pope Benedict.”

Their absence from Edinburgh indicates again how thin is the veneer of compatibility and co-operation at Stormont. The bigger picture painted by the Queen and the Pope was that 450 years of bitter religious division in Europe is now in danger of being laid to rest for ever.

There can be no escaping the symbolism of the Defender of the Protestant Faith holding out her welcoming hand to the Pope and his Catholic hierarchy.

If the meeting of the Queen and the Pope at Holyrood House serves to encourage people in Northern Ireland to show more mutual respect, it will have been worth all the effort and the millions spent.

The Pope may well reflect that his visit has proved more inspirational to Britain’s Catholic population than even he could have hoped. Those of us who observed from a distance could not fail but be impressed by the devoutness and allegiance of the faithful who came to worship with him.

In spite of all the bad publicity over child-abuse, young and old alike demonstrated a passion and commitment to their faith.

By doing so, they helped to revive the dented image of the Catholic Church, and reminded the rest of us that Christianity is far from extinguished — no matter how secular our society has become.

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