The First Minister has said she will meet Pope Francis if he makes a ground-breaking visit to Northern Ireland next year.
In a statement issued on Monday afternoon by the DUP press office, Arlene Foster said: “Any potential visit to Northern Ireland by the Pope is a matter for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London. Were the Pope to visit Northern Ireland in his capacity as Head of State then the First Minister would meet him.”
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.
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 Northern Ireland, 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 Northern Ireland.
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.
The Irish capital is hosting the two-day World Meeting of Families, a gathering of the Church.
“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 the country’s 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.