Northern Ireland

Pope visit to Northern Ireland more likely, says President Higgins

Pope Francis and Michael D Higgins Image copyright Reuters
Image caption President Michael D Higgins met with Pope Francis on Monday morning

Ireland's president has raised the prospect of Pope Francis visiting Northern Ireland next year.

Pope Francis has promised to visit Ireland for the World Meeting of Families in August 2018.

Michael D Higgins held a 15-minute audience with Pope Francis at the Vatican on Monday, then met the secretary of state of the Vatican.

Afterwards, he said "there is a better prospect and more scope" for a papal visit to Northern Ireland.

Mr Higgins said that during the longer meeting with secretary of state Cardinal Petro Parolin there was the opportunity to discuss "the changed circumstances of the last papal visit and the different circumstances now".

He added: "I have to say as well that, in all of that, in that second longer meeting, we were able to discuss specifically the importance of the Brexit negotiations in relation to the peace process.

"I think there was general agreement that circumstances were quite different now, and therefore the difficulties that might have been anticipated years ago, these circumstances were changed."

Image caption The president was accompanied by his wife Sabina during the visit

When pressed if Pope Francis and Cardinal Parolin both felt that circumstances had changed, President Higgins said: "Yes, there is agreement that circumstances have changed and that there is a better prospect and more scope."

Last year, the late Martin McGuinness, then Northern Ireland's deputy first minister, said he believed Pope Francis would cross the border and visit Northern Ireland in August 2018.

He told journalists: "I've been around a long time and I know how these things work."

A spokesman for First Minister Arlene Foster said if the Pope visited Northern Ireland as a head of state, she would meet him.

However, the Irish Catholic press office refused to confirm the visit would take place at the time.

According to a statement, President Higgins and the Pope also discussed migration, climate change, global poverty and the forthcoming Brexit negotiations during Monday's meeting.

Image caption President Higgins presented the Pope with a climate bell

The president and his wife presented Pope Francis with a climate bell designed by the Irish artist Vivienne Roche.

In return, the Pope Francis presented the president and his wife with medallions with an inscription of Isaiah, in which the Old Testament prophet refers to the desert becoming a fertile field, and the field then becoming a forest.

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