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All eyes on the Pope as he visits ‘Protestant Britannia’

The Pontiff’s audience with the Queen may prove to be a stepping stone to her planned visit to the Republic, says John Cooney.

Imagine dear Ireland as if it were a boat.

The prospect of its floundering would not be too remote.

And as the boat goes under to be lost beyond all hope,

From the deck you will hear 'God Save the Queen',

From the bridge, 'Long Live the Pope'.

This piece of doggerel encapsulates the sectarian divisions that have scarred relations between Ulster Protestants and Irish Catholics ever since the 16th-Century Reformation.

On a global scale, Britain, the foremost Protestant nation through the rabid religiosity of the English and the Scots, mobilised its empire in aggressive opposition to papal power, while Catholic Ireland spawned its own spiritual diaspora by exporting generations of priests and people to the United States, Australia, New Zealand and Canada.

In the perspective of this fire and dungeon history, it is a stunning turnaround that Pope Benedict has selected 'Protestant Britannia' ahead of 'Catholic Ireland' for an official state visit next month.

Even more remarkably, Pope Benedict will meet his host, Queen Elizabeth, the head of the Anglican Church of England, in Edinburgh, the capital of Presbyterianism.

That the Queen, a constitutional monarch, is meeting the Pontiff in Scotland rather than in her native England, may prove to be a stepping stone toward her planned trip to the Republic.

The warmth of the reception of Scottish Catholics to the spectacle of Queen Elizabeth welcoming Pope Benedict will be a weather-gauge for the timing of a Royal visit to Ireland.

While the organisers expect a good crowd to attend the papal open-air Mass in Glasgow's Bellahouston Park, the event will be hard put to generate the excitement that greeted Pope John Paul II when he took Scotland by storm in 1982.

In 1982, there was a generous allocation of tickets for Catholics in Ireland who wanted to travel to Glasgow for a second viewing of the Polish Pontiff whom they had lionised during his 1979 visit here.

However, this time, a modest allocation of some 2,500 'pilgrim passes' has been allocated to Catholics in Northern Ireland for the more sedate German Pontiff.

But it is expected that once Armagh receives its allocation, tickets from the autonomous Episcopal Conference of Scotland will be distributed as evenly as possible among the 26 dioceses to emphasise the all-Ireland character of the Irish Bishops' Conference.

A different matter may be the English leg of Pope Benedict's four-day visit. England and Wales have their own joint Conference of Bishops which, though it liaises regularly with its Irish and Scottish counterparts, has assigned tickets only to English and Welsh parishes.

And it remains to be seen if the heavy security surrounding the Pontiff will frustrate secularists from carrying out threats to have Pope Benedict arrested to face prosecution from victims of clerical child abuse. Bishop Philip Tartaglia, who heads the Communications Commission in Scotland, expects "the dying embers" of the child abuse scandal to be "fanned into flames" by the media.

Fraught as the visit will be from the spectres of secularisation in England and sectarianism in Scotland, veteran journalist Bill Heaney predicts Catholics in Britain will turn out in large numbers to give Pope Benedict as warm a welcome as they did for John Paul in 1982.

The reception in Britain will be monitored closely by the Irish bishops as a trial run for achieving their ambition to have the Pontiff in Dublin in 2012 for the International Eucharistic Congress.