'Change of circumstance' raises likelihood of Pope visit to North
President Michael D Higgins has indicated there is a strong possibility that Pope Francis will travel to the North during his trip to Ireland next year - after holding a meeting with the Pontiff in the Vatican yesterday.
During the last Papal visit in 1979, it was deemed too dangerous for then Pope John Paul II due to the Troubles.
However, due to a "change of circumstance" since then, Mr Higgins has opened up the possibility of an all-island trip in 2018, after a 15-minute audience with the Pope and a 45-minute meeting with the Vatican's Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin.
Following a behind-closed-doors conversation with Pope Francis, Mr Higgins and his wife Sabina then presented the Pope with a gift - a climate bell - which is part of a series by artist Vivienne Roche, and is similar to what was given to Prince Charles in Dublin a fortnight ago. He received an inscripted medallion in return - bearing words from 'Isaiah 32:15'.
The President thanked the Argentinian Pontiff in his native language of Spanish.
These efforts were reciprocated by the Pope, who attempted to break the ice between the pair in their meeting, by making a joke in English.
While spirits between the pair were jovial, it was Mrs Higgins who was notably caught up in the moment. The President's wife was overcome with tears as she left the Papal Library in the company of her husband and Pope Francis.
The Pope is due to visit Dublin for the World Meeting of Families in August 2018.
The President said that the potential of an abortion referendum coinciding with the visit is up to the Government to decide.
"Yes, I think he is very much looking forward to (coming to Ireland) if it is possible," the President said. "I'm very anxious to not put pressure on Pope Francis, but I of course assured him he would be warmly welcomed in Ireland.
"Yes, there was indeed (mention of Northern Ireland), particularly maybe in the conversation with Cardinal Parolin... of discussing the changed circumstances of the last Papal visit and the different circumstances now. I think there is an agreement that circumstances have changed and that there is a better prospect."
The opportunity was reiterated by Foreign Affairs Minister Charlie Flanagan, who accompanied the President. "I strongly recommended the Pope visit Northern Ireland; it did not happen in 1979 because the atmosphere was such that it was recommended that the Pope did not visit - plans are at an early stage," he said.
Mr Flanagan insisted it was important the Pope came to Ireland no matter what domestic event was taking place, in reference to a potential referendum.
Mr Higgins said other matters were discussed during his time at the Vatican.
"I did at the second meeting with Cardinal Parolin mention the importance of the public concern that we would recognise what happened in relation to the abuse of children by all of the institutional forces, religious, State and public," said Mr Higgins, who later made a speech at the Pontifical Irish College in Rome, before departing for Dublin last night.