Northern Ireland has much to gain from visit by Pope Francis
The last time a Papal visit was planned to include Northern Ireland it was shelved, chiefly because of the actions of the IRA. The murder of Lord Mountbatten and the deaths of 18 soldiers ambushed outside Warrenpoint led the Vatican and Irish authorities to think again about Pope John Paul II going to Armagh.
Instead, he delivered his message of peace from across the border at Drogheda before a massive crowd. To this day, his words must resonate with those who were there.
"On my knees I beg you to turn away from the paths of violence and return to the ways of peace."
Thirty-five years later, Northern Ireland has turned away from most paths of violence. Its political leaders have trodden the ways of peace, yet still there are differing views over inviting Pope Francis to Belfast.
Even if one accepts that Belfast is a place apart these days, there can be no reason why the Pope should not come to other parts of Northern Ireland and especially to the ecclesiastical centre of Armagh.
Popes – like other leaders in the free world – must run the gauntlet of protest. Security concerns remain paramount for all of them.
However, applying a little common sense in these much less troubled times is usually all that is required to ensure safe passage and no embarrassing incidents for visiting dignitaries on this island.
Northern Ireland has already played host to many international figures and events with the warmest of welcomes to all of them, in spite of our past record of conflict and continuing community divisions. So should be the case with an historic Papal visit.
How extraordinary in this day and age that any debate is required as to whether Pope Francis (below) should receive an invite to Belfast, or that any concerns exist as to whether he would be welcome.
Indeed, it could be argued that, rather than damage community relations, as some unionist councillors in Belfast appear concerned might happen, a visit from the Pope would have the opposite effect. Carried through with dignity and respect, the same as was accorded the Queen in the Irish Republic in 2011, a Papal visit might serve to enhance the image of Northern Ireland as a tolerant society.
Religious labels remain our cultural flags of convenience, yet come nowhere near to defining accurately our differences today.
In fact, it could be argued that many of the most devout Catholic and Protestant churchgoers, in their reduced numbers, display far more tolerance and respect for one another and have built more community bridges than the burgeoning ranks of the faithless. Pope John Paul II did not equivocate when he spoke at Drogheda. His words rang across this island. Even if those who were involved in terrorism chose to ignore them, the vast majority, Catholic and Protestant alike, agreed with his message and felt what he said needed to be said at that time.
The challenge facing unionist leaders is to find ways and means of reaching out to the Catholic community. Even though opinion polls suggest a majority of Catholics do not prefer a united Ireland, to reach a point where many might consider voting for pro-Union politicians will require an ecumenical tsunami to strike the shores of Ulster.
A warm-hearted welcome for such a significant and influential figure as the Pope would be a symbolic means of demonstrating that Northern Ireland has truly come of age.
We should remember that no single act of political rapprochement in Anglo-Irish relations has come anywhere near the achievement of the Queen's visit to the Republic, about to be reciprocated when the Irish president Michael D Higgins is entertained at Windsor Castle.
Friendly, respectful and trusting relationships are being built and developed between the British and Irish peoples. The challenge to the politicians on all sides here – unionist, nationalist and republican – is to engage and embrace this new entente, instead of continuing to exist in their separate bunkers.
There is nothing to be lost and much to be gained in unionist leaders standing up in support and not shrinking away from welcoming a visit by the Pope. Any reluctance to do so merely sends out another wrong signal to the Catholic community.
The Queen's visit to the Republic was a witness to the political maturity and confidence of the southern state. As the 16th anniversary of the Belfast Agreement approaches, Northern Ireland needs to demonstrate the same maturity and confidence to the outside world.