Arlene Foster is right to meet the Pope if he visits Northern Ireland

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The statement issued by the DUP yesterday on the likely papal visit to Northern Ireland next year was short '“ two lines in total.

It said that the visit was a matter for the foreign office. Then it added: “Were the Pope to visit Northern Ireland in his capacity as Head of State then the First Minister would meet him.”

This is a sentence of momentous significance.

In the early decades of Northern Ireland’s existence, the newly created country felt insecure alongside a much larger monolithic Catholic state across the border.

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Such a visit would have been unthinkable then and was even more unlikely once the Troubles had flared up at the end of the 1960s.

It was a decade into that conflict that Pope John Paul II visited Ireland in 1979. There was never any serious prospect of him crossing the border, given the tribal tensions. But the security situation has improved immeasurably since then, including far better cross-border and inter-community relations.

It is also the case that the number of fundamentalist opponents to a papal visit is smaller than it was 40 years ago.

This newspaper will always give editorial space to Christians who hold such doctrinal beliefs to explain their views. They will of course be free to protest against a visit by Pope Francis.

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But Arlene Foster has done the right thing in agreeing to meet him. She is first minister of Northern Ireland. No such position existed in 1979, and a very large minority of the population that she governs is Roman Catholic.

The DUP has often said it would like Catholic votes, and there is evidence that its conservative social sympathies has won it a small number of such voters. It would be incompatible with that electoral aim then to refuse to meet the Pope.

In any event there will soon be more irreligious people in Northern Ireland than there are regular churchgoers, be they Catholic or Protestant. It might be that Christians of all shades will feel that they have more in common with each other than with those of no faith at all.