Catholic unionist: DUP ‘snubbing’ of Pope Francis will backfire

Pope Francis is set to give an address in Dublin on Saturday
Pope Francis is set to give an address in Dublin on Saturday

A unionist politician with a Roman Catholic background has decried the DUP’s decision not to send anyone to an address by the Pope during his visit to the Republic of Ireland.

Stephen McCarthy has spoken out in the wake of news that there is to be no DUP presence at the Dublin Castle event.

The UUP councillor for the Threemilewater district of Newtownabbey said that not sending a DUP representative was “disappointing” and “constitutes a bit of a snub”.

The DUP last week announced that leader Arlene Foster would “regretfully” not be attending the event, because “she will be away with her family at that time”.

The News Letter understands she will be overseas at the time.

The DUP also added that she “appreciates the invitation” and “acknowledges the significance” of the event for Catholics.

However, no-one is set to deputise in her place.

The UUP’s own leader Robin Swann will not attend because he will be on parade in Larne at the time with the Royal Black Institution.

But Lagan Valley MLA Robbie Butler – a deacon at Maghaberry Elim church – will be present at Dublin Castle in his stead.

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood will attend, and Alliance has also said it will send a representative. Sinn Fein is reportedly set to be represented too.

Mr McCarthy – who describes his background as working-class Catholic, but is not very religious today – said that “our point of view in the UUP is that we should be trying our best to ensure that everybody who lives in Northern Ireland feels at home in Northern Ireland, feels at home in this part of the United Kingdom, and therefore will accept and grow to cherish the Union in the way that we do”.

Their absence from the Papal event “sends a message to – for want of a better way of putting it – British Catholics in Northern Ireland”.

He noted that conservative Catholics and the DUP share many core moral positions (such as opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage, for example).

He added “any unionist party that wants to see the Union survive should be looking beyond its traditional base”.

“But if they are wanting to expand beyond their base then surely the natural route of expansion would be those who have the same social and moral values as the DUP,” he said, concluding that by rejecting the invitation, the DUP “are potentially shooting themselves in the foot”.

Rev David McIlveen of the Free Presbyterian Church – which had just over 10,000 members according to the last census in 2011 – said the DUP is right not to go.

Speaking on Radio Ulster’s Talkback show, he said “I accept that to the Roman Catholic people that’s a very special event”, but that “we really shouldn’t be putting people under a severe obligation” to go.

On the same show, ex-SDLP MLA Alban Maginnis said whilst Mrs Foster has been “reaching out” with gestures such as attending the Ulster GAA final in June, this move will cause “enormous hurt” to Catholics, who will see it as “insulting”.