Belfast City Council has voted to invite the Pope to the city for the second time amid controversy.
The Alliance Party was accused of electioneering after Councillor Nuala McAllister proposed issuing a formal invitation to Pope Francis to visit the city during his trip to Dublin in 2018 for the 9th World Meeting of Families.
SDLP councillor Nichola Mallon said she was confused over why the motion was being proposed when an invitation had already been sent to the Vatican from the council in April 2014.
It was sent after a motion from her party colleague Pat McCarthy was backed, and followed the Queen’s first meeting with Francis at the Vatican.
It can be revealed that a response was sent on behalf of the Vatican by Monsignor Peter B Wells.
He thanked the council for the invitation and added: “I would assure you that this invitation and the noble sentiments that motivated it have been duly noted.”
But there was no indication over whether the Pope will take the invite up.
Last night, Ulster Unionist councillor Graham Craig proposed that the council “moved on” to other matters.
But Deputy Lord Mayor Guy Spence, who was chairing the meeting in the absence of Sinn Fein Lord Mayor Arder Carson, said the council would hear Ms McAllister’s motion.
Ms McAllister said she felt the 9th World Meeting of Families in Dublin would provide the opportunity for a Papal visit to Northern Ireland and proposed sending a formal invitation to Pope Francis to visit Belfast.
She said such a visit would be as historic as the visit of the Queen to Dublin.
DUP councillor John Hussey described the debate as “déjà vu”, and reiterated his party’s position from the 2014 discussion — that as the Pope is a head of state, it is only appropriate for the Queen to issue the invitation.
Sinn Fein councillor Jim McVeigh said he would welcome an invitation to the Pope to visit Belfast.
However DUP councillor Christopher Stalford accused Alliance of electioneering and “to peel off conservative Catholic voters to vote for the Alliance Party”.
Mr Craig asked whether the council would vote on his amendment to “move on” — and at one stage Mr Spence was almost drowned out by an uproar from the unionist benches, but he ruled that the council should vote on the motion.
Mr Spence reminded councillors that people were observing the meeting on a live online broadcast and urged them to behave in a mature way.
After a show of hands, the council voted 38-1 in favour of inviting Francis to Belfast again.
The sole TUV councillor, Jolene Bunting, voted against the motion.
The UUP changed its position from 2014 and its party councillors voted for the invite this time, alongside Alliance, the SDLP and Sinn Fein.