Peter Robinson's gesture to Pope Francis is encouraging
Published 14/04/2014 | 09:00
In a province where symbolism is all-important, it is encouraging to note that the First Minister Peter Robinson has softened his stance about meeting Pope Francis if he ever comes to Northern Ireland.
Some time ago, he said that as a non-Roman Catholic, he would not have the same desire to meet him as his co-religionists here, but that he would defend the right of others to do so.
However, in an interview in today's Belfast Telegraph, he has indicated that he would meet the Pope if he came here on a visit as head of the Vatican state, but not necessarily if it was only a pastoral visit.
The irony is that the idea of a Papal visit to Northern Ireland is still far into the realms of speculation, but even if the First Minister's views are hypothetical, the convoluted nature of his remarks shows the complexities of religion and politics in Northern Ireland. In practice, a Papal visit to Northern Ireland would be both state and pastoral, and no doubt the authorities would find of way of giving the First Minister an opportunity of meeting him, without causing difficulties.
On the positive side, however, Mr Robinson is showing a greater awareness of not offending any section of the Catholic community, in the same way that Martin McGuinness observed the rules of protocol when he met the Queen at Windsor last week.
The First Minister's words about the Pope are welcome, and so are his ideas about providing up to £160m a year more for the Health Service, which seems to be continually short of resources. How he does this is still a matter for conjecture, and the jury is still out on how far primary care can really help to reduce the pressure on the acute hospitals.
Referring to the upcoming local and European elections, the First Minister has urged DUP supporters to give their second and third preference votes to the UUP and UKIP, which is broadly in line with a unionist voting pact favoured by Mike Nesbitt of the UUP.
This has become the received wisdom within unionism which is attempting to vote tactically where possible, but it also reduces choice and is part of the corralling of voters into unionist or nationalist camps which perpetuates the divisions. Mr Robinson was right to reach out, but narrowing political choice is part of the problem, and not part of the answer.