Northern Ireland

Belfast City Council to invite Pope Francis to the city

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Media captionThe motion was passed by 30 votes to zero, with unionists abstaining

Councillors in Belfast have voted in favour of inviting the Pope to the city.

The proposal was backed by Sinn Féin, the SDLP and Alliance, but unionists councillors abstained.

Earlier this year, the Irish senate unanimously voted to invite Pope Francis for an official visit.

Pope Francis is due to meet the Queen on Thursday, and unionists argued it would be appropriate for her and the government to issue such an invitation.

DUP councillor Lee Reynolds said the motion presented by the SDLP "was essentially an election stunt and it wasn't a game we were willing to play".

"They were wanting an insult and we weren't going to give them that, so we chose the path of abstention," he said.

Ulster Unionist councillor Jim Rodgers, who had previously spoken out against issuing an invitation to the Pope, said he had decided to abstain after "giving the issue a lot of thought".

"I am concerned at the likelihood of trouble on our streets ... and I don't want any religious or civic leader coming here to find themselves offended and see violence on a large scale," he said.

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Image caption Belfast City Council will invite Pope Francis to the city

SDLP councillor Pat McCarthy said he was glad that unionists had not opposed the motion.

"I'm saddened that they couldn't find it in their hearts to support it, and send out a positive message from our city that we are progressing," he said.

Mr McCarthy said the council would write to the Pope's representatives and to the Northern Ireland Assembly, but added that it would be "wonderful if Her Majesty could welcome Pope Francis to Belfast".

Sinn Féin councillor Jim McVeigh said: "It was a pretty civil debate, and in politics it is OK to disagree, but it is unfortunate that unionist parties couldn't bring themselves to show that little bit of generosity.

"We have had the Dalai Lama in Belfast for example, he was very welcome and we learned something, and it should be the same for the Pope or any faith leader."

The only papal visit to Ireland saw Pope John Paul II come to Dublin in 1979.

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