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Diplomatic triumph for Pope Francis

The long-standing expectation that Pope Francis will visit Ireland, both north and south, next year has been further heightened by an intervention from President Michael D Higgins.

Speaking after a discussion with the pontiff in the Vatican on Monday, Mr Higgins referred to the issues which had restricted the itinerary of the late Pope John Paul II to venues within the Republic back in 1979 and said that `circumstances were quite different now.'

The president noted that Pope Francis has already accepted an invitation to attend the World Meeting of Families in Dublin in August, 2018, and said `there is now a better prospect and more scope' that he would also be able to cross the border.

It must be hoped that our devolved administration will be back in place long before the Pope's arrival, but in any event it is inevitable that an intense spotlight will be placed on the welcome extended to him by unionist leaders.

However, the way in which Pope Francis was able to smoothly deal with the sensitivities surrounding his encounter with President Donald Trump yesterday would indicate that a Stormont engagement will not present any undue difficulties.

The two men had previously publicly clashed during the US election campaign last year, when the Pope suggested that the hugely contentious plan to build a coast to coast Mexican wall was not Christian and Mr Trump immediately described his comments as `disgraceful.'

A very different and noticeably cordial mood was in place yesterday, with no conflicting views expressed at any stage, although some observers felt that Pope Francis was less jovial than usual and Mr Trump also appeared relatively subdued.

The Pope may well have made a subtle point by presenting Mr Trump with both a copy of his articles on the urgency of protecting the environment and a small sculptured olive tree, while also stressing the need to `construct peace', but diplomacy still triumphed.

There is every reason to believe that a papal handshake with unionist representatives, regardless of the setting, will be conducted in an equally amicable atmosphere.

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