Peter Robinson: If Pope Francis visits Belfast as a head of state, then I would be there to greet him
DUP leader softens stance but says it's 'hypothetical'
Peter Robinson has said he would be open to meeting with Pope Francis, if the Catholic leader visits Northern Ireland.
The DUP leader's apparent change of heart come just days after Martin McGuinness's historic decision to meet the Queen at a state banquet in Windsor.
Mr Robinson, who attends the Elim Pentecostal church, had recently discounted the idea of meeting the Pope.
"I am not of that faith, and therefore don't have the same desire to do so, but I would defend the right of others to meet their spiritual leader," he told the News Letter earlier this month.
He has now softened this stance in an interview with the Belfast Telegraph and he has clearly given the protocol some thought.
"The one thing you wouldn't be doing is offending any section of our community, particularly a section of the community that would have a strong adherence to the Pope," the First Minister said.
Mr Robinson stressed that "there is no talk in any official circles of the Pope coming to Northern Ireland".
He added that if it did happen he would consider the nature of the visit. Pope Francis is head of the Vatican state, which has diplomatic relations with the UK and Ireland.
"If a papal visit does take place it is largely a matter of what basis he is coming on. If he is coming as a head of state then clearly, as with any other head of state, I could meet the Pope," the First Minister stated.
He added: "If he was coming as a religious leader to speak to the faithful, and that was the context that was being mentioned, I am not a member of that faith so clearly that wouldn't be a visit where protocol would require me to meet him."
In practice, papal visits can have a mixture of religious and diplomatic elements. When the last Pope, Benedict XVI, visited England and Scotland in 2010 it was officially a state visit. However, the Pontiff also fulfilled many religious functions, including saying masses and beatifying John Henry Newman, a 19th century Cardinal who had previously been a Church of England cleric. This service officially recognised Cardinal Newman as a saint of the Catholic Church.
State visits are paid for by the host government, and the cost to the UK taxpayer was £10m, with the Catholic church billed for a similar amount because of the pastoral elements.
Neither Mr Robinson nor Mr McGuinness met Pope Benedict on that occasion. Rev Ian Paisley, the former DUP leader, described that visit as a mistake.
Mr Robinson stated: "We could spend the rest of our lives looking at hypothetical situations, this isn't happening and I don't see any value in going beyond what I have said. I certainly wouldn't be in the position of offending anybody."
Mr Robinson has previously broken with DUP tradition by attending the funeral mass of Ronan Kerr, a PSNI constable who was murdered by republican dissidents in April 2011. The funeral was a seminal moment in the peace process when the GAA and PSNI formed guards of honour.
Mr Robinson prepared the ground for that gesture in a Belfast Telegraph interview in February 2011. In it he said he was willing to attend the funeral services of dead Catholic friends and dignitaries.
"I wouldn't be going as an act of worship, I would be going as an act of respect for the individual," he stated.
The move was widely praised as a gesture of reconciliation and solidarity. However, he did attract some criticism from fundamentalist groups like the Evangelical Protestant Society.
The last papal visit to Ireland was a pastoral, rather than a state, event in 1979 when the Troubles were still raging.
Then, Pope John Paul II did not come north. His advisers had feared that he could be a target for loyalist paramilitaries and that his visit would heighten tension between Catholics and Protestants.
However, he did appeal for the IRA and other paramilitaries to end their violence when he addressed a crowd of 250,000 in Drogheda, Co Lough. He said it was "it is not the Christian way. It is not the way of the Catholic Church".