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UUP MLA Robbie Butler: I want to make sure that a forward-thinking unionism is represented at Pope visit



The papal cross and altar in Dublin’s Phoenix Park, where Pope Francis will celebrate Mass on Sunday

The papal cross and altar in Dublin’s Phoenix Park, where Pope Francis will celebrate Mass on Sunday

The papal cross and altar in Dublin’s Phoenix Park, where Pope Francis will celebrate Mass on Sunday

This weekend sees the first visit to Ireland by a Pope for almost 40 years, a welcome occasion for some but one shrouded in controversy for others.

The Roman Catholic Church's dominance in Ireland has certainly been diminished since John Paul II's visit in 1979 in terms of political clout and church attendance, largely as a result of the severe reputational damage caused by years of scandals and institutional abuse which have come to light since then.

There is certainly a lot of hurt felt by a great many Catholics, both in the Republic and in Northern Ireland, and it is my sincere prayer that Pope Francis' visit will be the beginning of real and meaningful steps being taken to heal these hurts.

When I agreed to be the Ulster Unionist representative to attend the event at Dublin Castle, the potential for healing was very much at the forefront of my mind.

The UUP is a political party, not one which belongs to any single denomination.

However, those that know me will be aware that my politics and my faith are intertwined.

I am a born again Christian and I believe that the message of Jesus Christ is ultimately one of hope and compassion, and it is in this light that I feel called to show love and respect, especially where it is needed most.

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Historic hurts will always make this a difficult thing to do for any person or institution, however, I do not feel that I can, in good conscience, demand the Catholic Church show respect to victims and their families if I refuse to show respect to the Church itself.

Over the years I spent as a Fire and Rescue Officer, I sadly saw a great many incidences of trauma and I know first-hand the burden on families' lives that trauma can bring, especially when it is allowed to fester for years. I believe Pope Francis' visit this weekend is more important than that of John Paul II in 1979 because this could be the last real chance for any pontiff to take meaningful steps towards healing these wounds.

Indeed, for many it is sadly too late, but that only reinforces how crucial this opportunity is now. It needs to be remembered that the Catholic Church has been a central feature in many people's lives.

If a political party were to refuse to send someone after being invited to meet the head of the Catholic Church, what kind of message does that send?

Refusing to show respect on this level only feeds into a narrative of division and mistrust, which I believe will only continue to frustrate any chance to bring Northern Ireland forward.

As I write this, it appears the DUP have refused the invitation to attend, which I struggle to understand.

This visit is an opportunity to show the world, but also to show ourselves, that Northern Ireland is ready to move forward, away from the hurts and divisions of the past and towards a more inclusive future for everyone.

This is why I want to make sure that a forward-thinking unionism is represented at this visit.

I have received many messages of encouragement and support since I announced I would be attending; however, I have also had several messages of caution from those who are upset or even outraged by my decision.

Whilst I have spoken directly to some of those who are upset and gently reminded them that Queen Elizabeth has met five Popes during her reign, some, however, will not listen to me and have labelled me a litany of names.

One thing needs to be made clear: I am not attending to pledge any kind of allegiance to the Catholic Church, nor am I going to shout words of condemnation. Simply put, I am going to show respect and to treat others as I would like them to treat me.

This is potentially the final opportunity for Pope Francis and the Catholic Church to address the enduring hurt and pain of the victims and families of institutional abuse and I hope his visit will be a catalyst for healing and restoration.

I am a confident Christian and I am a confident unionist. I have no doubt that as I travel back home from Dublin on Saturday evening I will remain these things.

Robbie Butler is Ulster Unionist MLA for Lagan Valley

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