N. Ireland Politics

Is dual snub to Pope and Queen a sign of progress?

The Pope and the Queen
Image caption It is the first papal visit to Britain since the reformation

"No Pope Here!" is a slogan that has been daubed on gable walls over decades.

As a statement of intent it is offensive to Catholics. As a statement of fact, however, it cannot be disputed.

For the Pope has been to the Republic of Ireland and Britain (now twice) but has never made it to Northern Ireland.

In 1979 when Pope John Paul II visited Ireland, there were many who wanted him to come to Armagh, the ecclesiastical capital.

But security concerns prevailed and the closest he came was Drogheda, where he made the famous plea to the IRA to stop its campaign.

"On my knees I beg you to turn away from violence," he said in words widely believed to have been crafted by the late Cardinal Cahal Daly.

Security nightmare

Proponents of a visit to Armagh argued that even greater impact would have been added to the words had he uttered them in the north.

But there were genuine fears of a security nightmare.

Not only were the IRA very active in those days, so too were the various loyalists groups.

And the likely protests from fundamentalist Protestants led by Ian Paisley would have been on an incomparable scale to the almost token demonstration Lord Bannside mounted in Edinburgh this week.

When John Paul made the trip to England three years later, there was no question of him making a return visit to this island.

Image caption Pope John Paul II never travelled north on his Irish visit in 1979

The historical significance of the first visit to Britain since the reformation was more than enough to handle including meeting the Queen and praying alongside the Archbishop of Canterbury.

But when it was mooted that another Papal visit to the UK would take place in 2010, informed speculation suggested Northern Ireland might finally be on the list.

Some were quick to dismiss this by stating that protocol would dictate that the Pope visit Northern Ireland as part of a trip to Ireland.

However with a transformed security and political situation and a British ambassador to the Vatican who happens to be a Northern Ireland-born Catholic, it's hard to believe that the idea wasn't, at least, given serious consideration.

Others have suggested that the state of the Irish Catholic Church and the handling of the child abuse scandals was another factor that weighed against a visit.

Political difficulties

But the fact that it ultimately didn't happen may say more about politics here than Church protocols and scandals.

The political difficulties with any visit to Northern Ireland were implicit in the line-up that greeted Pope Benedict when he arrived at Holyrood Castle in Edinburgh on Thursday.

Nick Clegg was there to represent the Westminster government. Alex Salmond was there as First Minister of Scotland. Carwyn Jones was there as head of the Welsh government. And from Northern Ireland there was… no-one.

A terse statement from the Office of First and Deputy First Ministers revealed that an invitation had been received but that neither was available.

So Peter Robinson has a problem meeting the Pope?

That's no great surprise; after all, no DUP representative attended Cardinal Daly's funeral, and while the Pope shook hands with the line-up at Holyrood, their former leader was protesting on the street nearby.

But what about Martin McGuinness? Well, his problem seems to have been the fact that he would have been presented to Benedict by the Queen.

Unusual politics

So rather neatly, the Northern Ireland government managed to simultaneously snub both the Queen and the Pope.

In the unusual politics of Northern Ireland that may even count as progress.

It is also be the reason why "No Pope Here!" can continue to be written with certainty across gable walls across the land.

On Sunday's Politics Show we assess the political fallout of another missed encounter with the Pope and we find out what our politicians make of the Billy Wright Inquiry's suggestion of Patten-style reform of the prison service here.

Join us at the later time of 1420 BST.

Jim

PS - Baroness May Blood is a woman for who the word indomitable was invented. But she also enjoys a joke, often against herself. At a recent event she was preceded at the microphone by Frances Rafferty, a teacher who represented Belfast in the 2010 Rose of Tralee competition.

"You've met the wonderful Belfast Rose," said the Baroness as she took the mic, "now get a load of the Shankill Thistle."

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