Leading article

Pope's visit will test political maturity

The vast majority of Irish citizens, from north and south and of all traditions, will take the same strongly positive attitude towards the expected arrival of Pope Francis next year as they did towards the visit of Queen Elizabeth in 2011.

By any standards, the Queen's trip to Dublin and other centres was enormously successful and symbolised the progress which has been made both in Anglo-Irish relationships and across the board over recent decades.

It can be anticipated that a similarly enthusiastic reception will be given to the Pope, particularly if as widely predicted he takes the historic step of including Ireland's ecclesiastical capital, Armagh, in his schedule

When his predecessor as pontiff, John Paul II, came to Ireland in September,1979, it was an enormous pity that the prevailing security crisis meant that he was unable to cross the border.

It was known that such an engagement was considered, but the appalling IRA attacks in Mullaghmore, Co Sligo, and Warrenpoint, Co Down, which killed 22 people including Lord Louis Mountbatten on the same day in the previous month ruled out any possibility of it taking place.

We have thankfully moved firmly into a different era which has brought us a huge way towards peace and reconciliation across the island, even if political arrangements at Stormont remain surrounded by uncertainty.

A noticeably small number of republican demonstrators objected to the Queen's visit six years ago, and a similarly limited level of response on the loyalist side may well face the Pope in Armagh.

It is always difficult to legislate for the behaviour of fringe elements, but, as long as their conduct is restrained and lawful, they are entitled to exercise their right to protest.

Much more significance surrounds the role of our leading political parties, and it should be acknowledged that Sinn Féin, after an error of judgment in turning down invitations to meet the Queen in Dublin in 2011, joined the other main nationalist and unionist groups in welcoming her to Belfast the following year.

The late Martin McGuinness led the way in extending the hand of friendship towards Queen Elizabeth and the DUP leader Arlene Foster has already indicated that she is ready to take the same stance towards Pope Francis.

It was not surprising that another senior DUP figure Sir Jeffrey Donaldson expressed similar views in an interview with The Irish Catholic newspaper last week, although there will will be a degree of concern that the Rev David McIlveen, as a retired minister in the Free Presbyterian Church so closely associated with the same party, immediately responded in negative terms.

In many ways, the prospective schedule of the Pope will offer the same opportunity to assess the maturity of our society as the engagements of the Queen did in both 2011 and 2012.

There will be a widespread hope that the tests which were effectively passed on those previous occasions will also be successfully addressed next year.

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