A Papal visit to Ireland will see the Pontiff enter into a a complex political situation

Some things never change. It seems that if the Pope goes to Northern Ireland, as part of his prospective Irish visit then the Free Presbyterian Church will protest.

This has happened before. When St John Paul II visited Britain in 1982, the Rev Ian Paisley protested, with the help of his friend Pastor Jack Glass. In 1988 when the saint visited the European Parliament, Paisley was on hand to denounce him as the anti-Christ. When Benedict XVI came to Britain, members of the Free Presbyterian Church were there to protest, alongside other groups. It would be most strange if a Papal visit were not to be accompanied by a Free Presbyterian protest.

As it is, the words of the current leader of the Free Presbyterians, Rev Ian Brown. are remarkably moderate. He said that because the current Pope is “no closer to proclaiming the one true biblical Gospel, that salvation is by faith alone through Christ alone, the only proper response to his high publicity visit is a solid protest.”

It is good to know that the objections to the Pope are theological; rather like the objections of Catholics to sola fide; though it has to be said that few Catholics, if any, ever feel moved to protest about that. At the same time, some Presbyterians are quite keen on seeing the Pope and like his theology, as the News Letter reports here.

Meanwhile, the same website reports that the Orange Order is keeping its counsel, given that the visit is still conjectural. Arlene Foster, the First Minister of Northern Ireland, has said she will meet the Pope, if he comes as a head of state: this represents an interesting, and correct, distinction.

St John Paul came to Britain on a pastoral visit; Benedict’s was a state visit, the difference being that Pope Benedict was invited by Gordon Brown. Mrs Foster will meet the Pope if he comes to Northern Ireland at the invitation of the British government. That is unlikely, I would imagine. Possible, though perhaps also unlikely, is the prospect of Mrs May flying to Northern Ireland to meet the Pope in the course of a pastoral visit. But if that were to happen, Mrs Foster could hardly not meet him too.

The political ramifications of a visit to Northern Ireland will have to be worked out. Certainly Martin McGuinness is very keen for the Pope to visit Northern Ireland, and the Irish Prime Minister is very keen to see him in the Republic.

The Pope’s reason for visiting is to take part in the World Meeting of Families, which is an apolitical event, but it is entirely possible that both Mr McGuinness and Mr Kenny see some political advantage to themselves in a Papal visit.

Perhaps Sinn Fein wants to burnish its much tarnished Catholic credentials with the voters. Perhaps Mr Kenny wants us all to forget his attack on the Vatican, which he made five years ago. That speech, let us all remember, pandered to anti-clerical feeling, while making no specific fact-based charge that the Vatican might refute. But now that Mr Kenny has seen the Pope, and given that Pope Francis has the global appeal of a rock star, the mood music has changed.

The changeable nature of Mr Kenny’s attitude to the Church and the Vatican are in strong contrast to the unchanging line taken by the Free Presbyterians. They are people of principle. I imagine the by-the-book Arlene Foster is too.

The Pope, in stepping into the world of Irish politics, may well find that the categories of avowed enemy and avowed friend rather confusing.