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Pope Francis likely to visit Northern Ireland next year

By Ryan Nugent

The Pope is likely to visit Northern Ireland next year, the President Higgins has indicated.

Michael D Higgins said there is a strong possibility that Pope Francis will travel over the border during his trip to Ireland after meeting with the pontiff in the Vatican yesterday.

During the last papal visit in 1979, Northern Ireland was deemed too dangerous for Pope John Paul II to travel because of the Troubles.

However, due to a "change of circumstance" since then, Mr Higgins has opened up the possibility of an all-island trip in 2018 after a 15-minute audience with the Pope and a 45-minute meeting with the Vatican's Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin.

Following a behind-closed-doors conversation with Pope Francis, Mr Higgins and his wife Sabina then presented the Pope with a gift - a climate bell - which is part of a series by artist Vivienne Roche. He received an inscribed medallion in return bearing words from Isaiah 32:15.

The President thanked the Argentinian pontiff in his native language of Spanish. And these efforts were reciprocated by the Pope, who attempted to break the ice between the pair in their meeting by making a joke in English.

While spirits between the pair were jovial, it was Mrs Higgins who was notably caught up in the moment. The President's wife was overcome with tears as she left the Papal Library in the company of her husband and Pope Francis.

The Pope is due to visit Dublin for the World Meeting of Families in August 2018.

"Yes, I think he is very much looking forward to (coming to Ireland) if it is possible," the President said.

"I'm very anxious to not put pressure on Pope Francis, but I of course assured him that he would be warmly welcomed in Ireland.

"Yes, there was indeed (mention of Northern Ireland), particularly maybe in the conversation with Cardinal Parolin... of discussing the changed circumstances of the last papal visit and the different circumstances now. I think there is an agreement that circumstances have changed and that there is a better prospect."

The opportunity was reiterated by Irish Foreign Affairs Minister Charlie Flanagan, who accompanied the President.

"I strongly recommended the Pope visit Northern Ireland, it did not happen in 1979 because the atmosphere was such that it was recommended that the Pope did not visit - plans are at an early stage," he said

Mr Higgins said that other matters between Church and State were discussed during his time at the Vatican.

"I did at the second meeting with Cardinal Parolin in particular mention the importance of the public concern that we would recognise what happened in relation to the abuse of children by all of the institutional forces, religious, State and public," President Higgins added.

Following on from the Vatican, Mr Higgins made a speech at the Pontifical Irish College in Rome. In it, he said he had discussed Brexit with the Pope and he said it was important for people to face up to the difficulties it poses.

"As with the great task of building peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland, there are those who will say that the challenges currently facing Europe are too deep and complex to solve," Mr Higgins said.

"And, as with Northern Ireland, it is important that we do not evade difficulties, that we face them in a spirit of truth and honesty, while keeping our eyes firmly set on the ideal and the greater human values guiding our actions."

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