Robinson 'open' to having meeting with Pope Francis
NORTHERN Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson has said he would be open to meeting with Pope Francis, if the Catholic leader were to visit.
The DUP leader's apparent change of heart comes just days after Martin McGuinness's historic decision to meet the queen at a state banquet in Windsor.
Mr Robinson, a Protestant, had recently discounted the idea of meeting the Pope. "I am not of that faith, and therefore don't have the same desire to do so but I would defend the right of others to meet their spiritual leader," he told the 'News Letter' earlier this month.
He has now softened this stance and he has clearly given the protocol some thought.
"The one thing you wouldn't be doing is offending any section of our community, particularly a section of the community that would have a strong adherence to the Pope," Mr Robinson said.
He stressed: "There is no talk in any official circles of the Pope coming to Northern Ireland."
He added that if it did happen he would consider the nature of the visit.
The Pope is head of the Vatican state, which has diplomatic relations with the UK and Ireland.
"If a papal visit does take place it is largely a matter of what basis he is coming on. If he is coming as a head of state then clearly, as with any other head of state, I could meet the Pope," Mr Robinson said.
"If he was coming as a religious leader to speak to the faithful, and that was the context that was being mentioned, I am not a member of that faith so clearly that wouldn't be a visit where protocol would require me to meet him."
In practice, papal visits can have a mixture of religious and diplomatic elements.
When the last Pope, Benedict XVI, visited England and Scotland in 2010 it was officially a state visit. However, the Pontiff also fulfilled many religious functions, including saying Masses and beatifying John Henry Newman, a 19th Century cardinal who had been a Church of England cleric.
Neither Mr Robinson nor Martin McGuinness met Pope Benedict on that occasion.
Former DUP leader Rev Ian Paisley described the visit as a mistake.
Mr Robinson stated: "We could spend the rest of our lives looking at hypothetical situations, this isn't happening and I don't see any value in going beyond what I have said. I certainly wouldn't be in the position of offending anybody."
Mr Robinson, an evangelical Protestant, has previously broken with DUP tradition by attending the funeral Mass of Ronan Kerr, a PSNI constable who was murdered by republican dissidents in April 2011.
The funeral was a seminal moment in the peace process, when the GAA and PSNI formed guards of honour.
Meanwhile, Pope Francis began the Holy Week leading up to Easter by celebrating Palm Sunday with about 100,000 pilgrims in St Peter's Square.
Palm Sunday marks the day that the Gospels say Jesus rode into Jerusalem, with his followers laying cloaks and palm fronds over his path.
Pope Francis led his own procession of palms into St Peter's, blessing the palm fronds and olive tree branches clutched by members of the crowd at the start of the ceremony.
The 77-year-old pontiff then delivered an entirely off-the-cuff address, ignoring his prepared speech in a remarkable departure from custom.