Arlene Foster vows to meet Pope during expected visit to North

Arlene Foster vows to meet Pope during expected visit to North
Arlene Foster

Northern Ireland First Minister Arlene Foster, leader of the once staunchly anti-papist Democratic Unionists, has vowed to meet Pope Francis during an expected trip to the region.

Ms Foster's welcome has paved the way for what would be a groundbreaking visit in 2018 by the Pontiff, almost exactly 30 years after her party founder and former DUP leader Ian Paisley denounced Pope John Paul II as the anti-Christ.

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 Vatican City, a sovereign city-state within Rome.

Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness said there was "no prospect" of the Pope not crossing 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 the North, where he wanted to visit Armagh, during the last papal visit to Ireland in 1979.

Instead, amid a welter of security fears and cross-community tensions, he travelled as far as Drogheda, just south of the border, where he addressed hundreds of thousands, including many from the North.

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 anti-Christ.

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

Dublin is hosting the two-day World Meeting of Families, a gathering of the Church in that month.

"If it transpires that the Pope wants to go to Northern Ireland, to any part of Northern Ireland, for a visit then we will co-operate and work with the (Northern Ireland) Executive," said Mr Kenny.

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.

Mr Kenny's meeting with the Pope will also be seen as a milestone in the thawing of relations between Dublin and the Vatican over recent years.

Just five years ago, amid a wave of inquiries into decades of clerical child sex abuse in Ireland, the Taoiseach branded the Holy See "a dysfunctional, elite hierarchy" which was determined to frustrate the investigations of "a sovereign, democratic republic".

The Vatican recalled its ambassador to Ireland just days after the unprecedented attack by an Irish premier on the Catholic Church hierarchy.

The Irish Embassy to the Holy See in Rome was also shut that year, ostensibly as a cost-cutting measure.

Three years later, Dublin announced plans to reopen it.

Mr Kenny said: "I explained to him my own difficulties with the Church some years ago and I was happy to confirm to him that Church and state relations are now in better shape than they were for very many years."

The timing of Pope Francis's planned trip to Ireland has already raised concerns that it could clash with a potential referendum on our abortion laws.

A Citizens Assembly is considering the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, which recognises "the right to life of the unborn, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother". It will recommend possible reforms next year.

Transport, Tourism and Sport Minister Shane Ross said a papal visit would be likely to boost tourism but he voiced worries about the timing.

"I simply think that maybe there are better times to come than in the middle of a controversial political matter in which he might get embroiled," he said.

Mr Kenny said he would wait to see what the Citizens Assembly recommends, adding that a referendum would not be held in the month of August in any event.

Nichola Mallon, an SDLP MLA and former lord mayor who welcomed the Queen to Belfast, said a papal visit could help healing and reconciliation across the island.

"I'm delighted that Pope Francis will visit Northern Ireland in 2018," she said.

"The previous visit of St John Paul during the darkest days of conflict was a symbol of hope at a time when the people of Ireland needed it most.

"We've come a long way since then but we have so much ground left to travel. His visit to the North will, I believe, reignite reconciliation between communities across this island, providing a new imperative not only to heal the wounds of our past but to work in partnership to tackle the injustice that endures in our society."

The Alliance Party also "warmly welcomed" the expected visit.

Alliance MLA Trevor Lunn said: "Unfortunately, at the time of the visit of Pope John Paul II, the situation in Northern Ireland prevented him from coming north, but we are in a much better place now.

"The main purpose of this visit will be for the World Meeting of Families and it will be a natural extension of the visit for Pope Francis to come north, where I believe families from every community will come out to welcome him."

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

His spokeswoman added that he welcomed the fact that the Taoiseach reiterated the Government's commitment to providing all appropriate arrangements.

More in this Section

Man, 60s, killed in Tipperary hit and runMan, 60s, killed in Tipperary hit and run

July 11 bonfires set to be lit at midnightJuly 11 bonfires set to be lit at midnight

Summer Provision to be extended to primary school students with special needs Summer Provision to be extended to primary school students with special needs

Two further Covid-19 related deaths, Department of Health confirmsTwo further Covid-19 related deaths, Department of Health confirms


The long-tailed tit’s nest is an architectural marvel.Richard Collins: Altruism of the long-tailed tits or not

The flight that brought us home to Ireland after our seven months sojourn in the Canary Islands (half our stay intended, half not) was the most comfortable I’ve experienced in years. With a large plane almost entirely to yourself, you could again pretend you were somebody.Damien Enright: Wonderful to see the green, green grass of home

IRISH folklore is replete with stories of priests praying for fine weather to help farmers save their crops in wet summers. However, the opposite could soon be happening when divine powers may have to be invoked to provide rain. And not just for farmers.Donal Hickey: Praying for rain — in Ireland

Geography is often the defining factor for the destiny of an island. Those islands that lie close to the shore have often been snapped up by interests on the mainland and their morphology changed to something completely different.The Islands of Ireland: Tarbert morphed onto the mainland

More From The Irish Examiner