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Papal visit to NI would be very positive step: Villiers

By Sarah Mac Donald - 03 April, 2014

Unanimous vote by Belfast City Hall to invite Pope Francis on an official visit.

Pope Francis

The Secretary of State for the North has said a papal visit would be “a very positive step” for Northern Ireland.

Speaking in the House of Commons on Wednesday, Theresa Villiers said she had “every confidence that the security situation would mean that a papal visit to Northern Ireland would be entirely possible.”

She said protocol required that any invitation extended to the Pontiff be dealt with by the Northern Ireland Executive.

Recalling Pope Benedict’s visit to the UK, she told the MP for North Down, Lady Hermon, “The papal visit to London was extremely successful.”

Her comments were made a day ahead of Queen Elizabeth II’s meeting with Pope Francis in a private audience at the Vatican this afternoon.

The Queen will be accompanied by her husband, Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh.

The audience with Pope Francis will mark the 87-year-old Queen’s fifth meeting with a Roman pontiff here in the Vatican, beginning with Pope Pius XII whom she met in 1951, the year before her accession to the throne.

The Queen is head of the Anglican Church.

In 1982, she became the first monarch since the Reformation to welcome a pope to Britain during John Paul II’s pastoral visit to the country and in 2010 she also hosted Benedict XVI on his state visit to the United Kingdom.

Theresa Villiers’ comments on a possible papal visit to Northern Ireland follow the unanimous vote by 30 councillors at Belfast City Hall backing a motion inviting Pope Francis on an official visit.

The SDLP motion read, “This council notes that the Irish Seanad, on 19 February, unanimously passed a motion by Senator David Norris, inviting Pope Francis to visit Ireland.

“Should the Holy Father accept that invitation, this council invites him, as a man of faith, peace and reconciliation, to visit the city of Belfast and calls upon the Northern Ireland Assembly to extend a similar invitation.”

The SDLP, Sinn Fein and the Alliance Party voted in favour.

However, members of the DUP abstained from the vote, with a number suggesting it could further heighten sectarian tensions.

The vote means that Belfast City Hall will now write to Pope Francis and invite him to consider visiting the city if he were to make a trip to Ireland.

Pope John Paul II visited Ireland in 1979.

However, a proposed visit to Armagh was ruled out after the IRA murdered the Queen’s cousin, Lord Mountbatten, along with three other people, including his grandson Nicholas, in a bomb attack on their fishing boat at Mullaghmore, Co Sligo, in August 1979.

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