The incoming DUP leader Edwin Poots’ refusal to say whether or not he would attend a Catholic Mass if invited is a cause for “concern”, according to Prof. Deirdre Heenan of Ulster University.
Answering this paper’s query about Mass, a spokesman for Mr Poots replied saying: “Mr Poots is heartened that people of all faiths are able to return to congregational worship and has received a number of invitations from the faith community which he will consider in due course”.
Prof. Heenan said that it’s important to remember the North has come through an “extraordinarily difficult time” and that if you are taking on a leadership role, your job “is to lead and to be progressive, to be pragmatic, to show people that you’re willing to be generous”.
“I think generosity is hugely significant here. And so I think there will be concern with a very guarded comment like the one that he’s given, where he is refusing to say, ‘Well, yes, of course I would go, why wouldn’t I go?’ He’s being so cagey about it. It’s almost the worst of both worlds.”
“It’s this kind of obfuscation and dodging the issue, steering away from difficult issues, leaders have to face what they perceive to be difficult issues head on.”
She said that it further shows how far politicians are lagging behind the public, “The vast majority of people, if they are a friend or an acquaintance or someone who wants to pay their respects, from any religion, they would have the ability to say, ‘I will attend a service to show respect or leadership and why wouldn’t I?’”
Mr Poots is a member of the Orange Order which forbids members from taking part in Catholic ceremonies. However, previous DUP leaders have in recent years steered the party away from this hard-line attitudes.
Peter Robinson attended the funeral Mass of murdered Catholic PSNI officer Constable Ronan Kerr in 2011. And in 2017, Arlene Foster attended the requiem Mass for the former deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness in Derry.
Prof. Heenan said: “I suppose his response will add to the perception that his leadership is a regressive step.”
Former SDLP Assembly Member Alban Maginness defended Mr Poots saying that there are “big sensitivities there” as he is a member of the Free Presbyterian Church, which he describes as not “terribly ecumenical”.
However, he said: “They think if you attend you’re actually participating in something which they fundamentally disagree with because they don’t accept the Eucharist as they understand it. You have to put it into that context, it’s not just a matter of them being crassly anti-Catholic. You have to understand where he’s coming from, obviously I don’t like it but I do understand. Either we accept people as they are, rather than imposing our view on what they should be upon them.”
Mr Maginness said that the media want Mr Poots to come out in favour of abortion and gay marriage, but the “man has views, we might not share those views, but they are his and that’s it and I don’t think it does very much harm to any of us”.
“Every time a journalist opens their mouths they say ‘he’s a creationist’, yeah ok, he has this crazy view but has that affected his performance as a politician? No it hasn’t,” he added.