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Foster vows to meet Pope as NI visit in 2018 looks likely

By Brian Hutton

Published 29/11/2016

Pope Francis with Enda Kenny and his wife Fionnuala yesterday
Pope Francis with Enda Kenny and his wife Fionnuala yesterday

First Minister Arlene Foster has vowed to meet Pope Francis during an expected trip to Northern Ireland.

Her welcome has paved the way for what would be a groundbreaking visit in 2018 by the pontiff, almost exactly 30 years after party founder and former DUP leader Ian Paisley denounced Pope John Paul II as the Antichrist.

Her spokesman said: "Were the Pope to visit Northern Ireland in his capacity as Head of State then the First Minister would meet him."

The Pope is Head of State of the Vatican, a sovereign city-state within Rome.

Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness said the Pope would almost certainly cross the border after it was confirmed he will travel to Dublin in two years' time for a global gathering of the Catholic Church.

"I think there is no prospect whatsoever of him coming to Ireland and him not coming to the North," he said.

Asked why he was so sure, he replied: "Because I'm around a long time and I know how these things work."

Pope John Paul II was unable to cross the border into Northern Ireland, where he wanted to visit Armagh, during the papal visit to Ireland in 1979.

Instead, amid a welter of security fears and cross-community tensions, he travelled as far as Drogheda, close to the frontier, where he addressed hundreds of thousands, including many from Northern Ireland.

Several years later Mr Paisley was thrown out of the Strasbourg Parliament for heckling the pontiff while unfolding a poster declaring the Pope to be the Antichrist.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny confirmed Pope Francis would travel to Ireland in August 2018 after a 23-minute meeting with him in the Vatican yesterday.

And he moved to dispel speculation that the timing of the pontiff's trip could coincide with a potential vote on abortion, saying "you would not hold any referendum in the month of August in Ireland".

The Irish capital is hosting the two-day World Meeting of Families, a gathering of the Church. Speculation has been mounting since Catholic Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin said earlier this year Irish bishops would like the Pope to visit Northern Ireland.

"Pope Francis has this tendency to make important gestures of reconciliation... and I suspect that when we start to talk about this trip, Pope Francis will surprise us all with some highly symbolic gesture," he said at the time.

Archbishop Martin said the visit will be "an important gift from Pope Francis to the Irish Church and the Church globally".

Rev Trevor Gribben, General Secretary of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, said the Pope "would be most welcome".

"Should any visit include an appropriate opportunity to travel north and visit Northern Ireland, I would trust that all in our community would take the opportunity to show due respect to such a visit," he said.

"That will indeed be a sign that as a society we are continuing to develop into the kind of country that we all want Northern Ireland to be."

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