Belfast City Council to invite Pope to city as unionists abstain from historic vote
Unionists at Belfast City Hall have refused to back a historic bid to invite the Pope to the city, blasting it as "presumptuous", "dishonourable" and "electioneering".
However, DUP, UUP and PUP members of the city council last night did not vote against the proposal by SDLP councillor Pat McCarthy, instead choosing to abstain.
The motion was passed by 30 votes to none against, with the SDLP, Sinn Fein and Alliance all backing it.
The debate around the proposal lasted more than 30 minutes – longer than the council devoted to any other topic. By comparison, just two minutes was spent discussing the issue of food poverty in the city.
Councillor McCarthy proposed the motion to invite Pope Francis to Belfast, noting that in February the Irish Seanad had invited the pontiff to visit the Republic.
He urged his fellow councillors to ask the Pope to visit Belfast "as a man of faith, peace and reconciliation".
"In recent months and years our society has become static, the flame of hope and ambition experienced with the Good Friday Agreement has dwindled, but is not dead," he said. "It is up to us to rekindle it."
DUP group leader Lee Reynolds responded by telling the council that if the Pope is invited to Belfast, it is for the Queen to do as the UK head of state, not the council.
He also accused the SDLP of acting without honour and electioneering by proposing the motion just seven weeks before an election.
"There is a game being played," he said.
"We will offer no insult, we will not play their sad game."
Ulster Unionist councillor Jim Rodgers said he is not against the Pope visiting Northern Ireland, but didn't think Belfast was an appropriate location.
"We don't want to bring someone here to embarrass them or be embarrassed," he said. "I am not anti-pope, I don't agree with those who talk about going out to kick the Pope."
PUP councillor John Kyle said he felt the proposal was "inappropriate" and "presumptuous", adding it would be up to the Queen to invite the Pope.
Sinn Fein group leader Jim McVeigh said his party had no problem supporting issuing an invitation to the Pope, in the same way they supported a visit by the Dalai Lama.
Alliance group leader Maire Hendron added her party's support to the motion, hailing Pope Francis as a "person dedicated to peace".
Cllr McCarthy summed up the debate by saying he felt saddened by some of the remarks made in the chamber.
"They haven't got the love in their hearts or shown any sign of reconciliation," the SDLP councillor said.
"I am not going to sink to the level of some of my colleagues, but rest assured this story will go around the world, people in America who wanted to invest money will see those who want to take our city forward and those who are stuck in the past."
- This is believed to be the first invitation issued by Belfast City Council to a pope.
- No pope has visited since partition in 1921.
- The last papal visit to Ireland was in 1979.
- Pope Francis has not yet indicated whether he will accept the invitation to visit the Irish Republic next year.
- The Queen is expected to meet the Pope this week.