Reflections on seeing Pope Francis

Tuesday 28th August 2018

My visit to Dublin Castle on Saturday to hear the address made by both Pope Francis and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar conjured a number of emotions.

Before I travelled to Dublin Castle I said that I was going on behalf of the Ulster Unionist Party to show respect and to treat others as I would like them to treat me – and I believe that’s what I did. As confident Unionists we knew it was the right thing to do. There is growing discontentment within our communities and relationships have become increasingly polarised, fuelled by a political vacuum created by the DUP and Sinn Fein stand-off which harks back to another era.

Therefore it was vital to show a fresh respect and confidence that is lacking across much of our political divide.

Following my visit, I remain a confident Christian and a confident Unionist. It obviously has not placated my critics, but we would never move forward if we were to always listen to the loudest and angriest voices. Northern Ireland needs people to show that we can move forward, but to do so we need to build trust and mutual respect which has been so sadly missing over the last number of years. As politicians we need to show that there is hope and that we do have a vision for a better future.

I also said that I wanted to hear what the Pope had to say to bring comfort and healing to the victims of institutional abuse. What I found was a subdued atmosphere in and around Dublin.

In Dublin Castle, Leo Varadkar laid the ground for the Pope to address directly the enduring hurt and pain inflicted on victims and their families and account for the hurt and misery that generations of men, women and children have been subject to. Unfortunately, and I say this with regret, it was a missed opportunity. No-one can deny that what all the attendees wanted to hear from Pope Francis was not only a message on behalf of the church of admission and apology but also a statement that would provide confidence that the church was ready for full disclosure and clearing the decks of any and all priests, cardinals or bishops connected with abuse, cover-ups or facilitation. People wanted to hear about the actions that the church will take.

Certainly the speech made at Dublin Castle was bereft of any real conviction of purpose. I have no doubt that many of those hoping for practical restitution and healing have been left unsure as to what the next steps might be for the church.

In a number of conversations I had with clergy from various denominations and faiths, and politicians from both Northern Ireland and the Republic, it was obvious that the sheer magnitude of apathy towards the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland is palpable. I regret to say that I don’t think the Pope’s words in Dublin Castle on Saturday will change that.

However my opinion is insignificant compared with the most important voices of all – those of the victims and their families.