Shift in party’s position
The DUP has given the strongest indication yet that the party will welcome a visit by Pope Francis to the North during the Pontiff’s expected visit to the island of Ireland next year.
Sir Jeffrey Donaldson – one of the party’s most-senior figures – told The Irish Catholic that he would be hopeful that a visit by Pope Francis to the North could encourage other Church leaders to take a more public stance on issues of concern to Christians.
Mr Donaldson said: “when we look at the moral issues of today, I’m looking forward to what Pope Francis has to say about those because I think that the debate has become very secular.”
It represents a significant softening in the traditional position from within the DUP which saw the party’s former head Ian Paisley lead opposition to St John Paul II’s 1979 visit to Ireland. As recent as last year, the current DUP leader Arlene Foster said she would meet the Pope “in his capacity as Head of State” but stopped short of saying she would welcome the Pontiff as a religious leader.
Mr Donaldson’s comments appear to mark a considerable shift in the DUP position, particularly since he is the party’s Chief Whip.
On the reaction from within the Protestant community, Mr Donaldson said that “if Pope Francis decides to visit Northern Ireland as part of his visit to the island, I don’t think there will be a negative reaction from the Protestant community. There is a recognition that Pope Francis is the head of the Catholic Church that a very substantial portion of our population adheres to the Catholic Church,” Mr Donaldson said.
Expressing the hope that the Pontiff will speak out on pressing moral issues, Mr Donaldson – the DUP MP for Lagan Valley – criticised the secular tone of a lot of debate. “I think that the liberal elements in our society have sought to dominate that debate and I think the Church should have a clear voice on this. And it saddens me at times that the Church leaders do not speak out enough and with the same unequivocal approach to those moral issues.
“So as a Protestant Presbyterian living in Northern Ireland, I look with interest to what the Pope has to say about the big moral issues of the 21st Century and what they mean on this island and in Northern Ireland,” Mr Donaldson told The Irish Catholic.