Belfast Telegraph

Pope in Ireland: Why meeting Francis would have been an easy gig for Arlene Foster

By Suzanne Breen

Arlene Foster's attempts at bridge-building haven't just hit a bump in the road, there's been a crash landing with the DUP leader's decision not to meet the Pope this weekend.

Listening to Pope Francis deliver an address in Dublin Castle would have been an easy gig.

Attending a GAA match and an LGBTQ reception were far more challenging events for the DUP leader. The pontiff is unlikely to say anything with which Mrs Foster disagrees.

On the big social issues of the day - same-sex marriage and abortion reform - the Pope and the DUP are singing off the same hymn sheet.

Other political leaders who will gather in Dublin Castle for Saturday's event have diametrically opposed positions to the pontiff on those subjects.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin, Sinn Fein deputy president Michelle O'Neill et al have strongly liberal views.

Pope Francis could have looked around that room and known that in Mrs Foster he had a friend. The DUP dressed up its no show as well as it could with a statement saying Mrs Foster greatly appreciated the invitation but "regretfully" would be away. Yet the fact remains that even arch-moderate Simon Hamilton wasn't drafted in to replace her.

The Pope may still be the anti-Christ for some in the party's ranks - although a dwindling number - but as a member of the Church of Ireland, Mrs Foster holds no such views herself.

Had he been visiting here, the DUP leader would surely have been present.

Amidst speculation in 2016 about such a trip, a DUP spokesman said: "Any potential visit to Northern Ireland by the Pope is a matter for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London. Were the Pope to visit Northern Ireland in his capacity as Head of State, then the First Minister would meet him."

But the party's top brass obviously decided that whatever PR would have been gained from crossing the border to meet the pontiff wasn't enough to justify upsetting a section of its base.

That calculation may be logical but it highlights the shallowness of the party's previous claims that more and more conservative Catholics are supporting it. If they were, the electorally savvy DUP would be first in the Dublin Castle VIP queue on Saturday.

Yet the DUP isn't the only party exposed on this one.

Oh the irony of self-proclaimed secular, progressive politicians being so very keen to have an audience with the Pope - especially in the wake of yet another shocking child sex abuse scandal.

Belfast Telegraph

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