Joint visit to NI by Queen and pope '˜not going to happen'

Key sources have poured cold water on media speculation about a joint visit by the Queen and Pope Francis to Northern Ireland next year.

The Duke of Edinburgh shakes hands with Pope Francis while the Queen looks on the Vatican in 2014
The Duke of Edinburgh shakes hands with Pope Francis while the Queen looks on the Vatican in 2014

Two senior sources in the Catholic Church played down the reports, while it is understood organisers behind Royal visits to Northern Ireland also regard the prediction as “speculation”.

Rev Harold Good, who played a key role in witnessing the decommissioning of terrorist weapons in 2005, had openly welcomed the possible visit, but when contacted by the News Letter also played down the reliability of the reports.

Q Radio broke the story on Tuesday which was then picked up by other media.

There has been heightened speculation that Pope Francis will attend a major Catholic conference in Dublin at the end of August next year, the World Meeting of Families.

However, a spokeswoman for the conference told the News Letter that it is not yet even confirmed that the Pope will visit Dublin in 2018, never mind Northern Ireland.

She therefore described the possibility of a joint visit to Northern Ireland as “media speculation”.

“We will not know until sometime next spring if there will be a papal element to next year’s World Meeting of Families in Dublin in August,” she added.

Rev Hood initially gave a warm welcome to news of a potential joint visit. But when asked by the News Letter if he had any inside information that the trip was likely, he replied: “None whatsoever. I now realise that this was speculation. It may be that this was premature.”

When contacted by the News Letter, the Queen’s press office would only say that her programme for 2018 would be confirmed in due course in the normal way.

A UK government spokeswoman similarly said it does not comment on such visits until an invitation has been extended and accepted, and an announcement made in agreement with the visitor.

However, the News Letter understands that officials close to the organisation of Royal visits to Northern Ireland also regard the reports as “speculation”.

The Scottish Catholic Observer reported that Michael Kelly, editor of the Irish Catholic, also rejected the reports.

“It’s not going to happen,” he said, adding that any joint visit to Northern Ireland by the pair would “overly politicise” the pope’s role.

However, Q Radio Head of News, Bob Huggins, stood firm: “I stand by my sources and my story. Plans for a joint visit are being worked on.”