The Pope ‘forgets’ Northern Ireland

The Pope has paid a lot of attention to us Brits this year. He visited Scotland and England in September, and today he delivered BBC Radio 4’s Thought for the Day. All creatures great and small have delivered this daily address over the years. Though none as great in the eyes of ecclesia as His Holiness, the successor to St Peter.

After all the righteous criticism levelled at the Roman Catholic church on its handling of sex abuse scandals, it is understandable the Pope should want to take the opportunity to set the agenda.

Thought for the Day is a religious reflection. There is an ongoing debate on whether it should be open to non-religious voices from time to time. But that is how it is for now.

It is not a political reflection. Or at least it shouldn’t be. But, by an act of omission, has the Pope unwittingly strayed into controversial political territory?

He recalls “with great fondness [his] four-day visit to the United Kingdom”. He follows this with a contemplation of the Christmas message and then a plea for us:

Dear friends from Scotland, England, Wales, and indeed every part of the English-speaking world, I want you to know that I keep all of you very much in my prayers during this Holy Season.  I pray for your families, for your children, for those who are sick, and for those who are going through any form of hardship at this time.  I pray especially for the elderly and for those who are approaching the end of their days.  I ask Christ, the light of the nations, to dispel whatever darkness there may be in your lives and to grant to every one of you the grace of a peaceful and joyful Christmas.  May God bless all of you!
Pope Benedict XVI, Thought for the Day, 24 December 2010

I note that after reflecting on his “visit to the United Kingdom” he then addresses “friends from Scotland, England, Wales, and indeed every part of the English-speaking world”. What about Northern Ireland? While it is self-evidently part of the English-speaking world, it is also one of just four UK territories. Three nations are mentioned. One is not.

Northern Ireland listeners (if, like most, they happen to own a television) are among those who pay for the BBC through their TV Licence. It is very much a part of the United Kingdom; the Republic of Ireland has made no claim on it since its ratification of the Belfast Agreement in 1998. Even Sinn Fein accepts the status quo for now, though with great reluctance.

For the Pope to have left Northern Ireland unmentioned, especially given the historic religious sensitivity, seems like a careless oversight. Perhaps so; but I would be amazed if his advisers did not think it through.

If they did, the omission of Northern Ireland was deliberate. The Pope has a right, and a duty, to be controversial. But by failing to mention Northern Ireland in his broadcast, he is in danger of offending both Catholics and Protestants, if perhaps for different reasons.

Update (28 Dec 2010): I just remembered that the British Ambassador to the Holy See is Francis Campbell (Northern Ireland born and raised). This makes the omission of Northern Ireland in the Pope’s address even more fascinating.

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