March 21, 2018 / 9:49 AM / a month ago

Pope announces Dublin visit in August, no Northern Ireland stop

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Pope Francis announced on Wednesday that he will make the first papal trip to Ireland in nearly 40 years, visiting Dublin for two days in August to conclude an international Catholic Church meeting on families.

Pope Francis waves as he arrives to lead the Wednesday general audience in Saint Peter's square at the Vatican, March 21, 2018. REUTERS/Tony Gentile

There had been speculation that the pope would also visit Northern Ireland, whose leaders had floated the idea of a papal visit.

But the pope, who announced the visit to tens of thousands of people in St. Peter’s Square for his weekly audience, said his visit would be limited to the Irish capital.

The World Meeting of Families is taking place in Dublin Aug. 21-26. The pope will preside at the closing ceremonies on the final two days, Aug. 25-26.

The Catholic Church’s once blanket influence on politics and society in Ireland has plummeted in recent years in the wake of a series of clerical sex abuse scandals.

Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, 39, the country’s first openly gay leader, has said he would campaign for a liberalisation of the country’s restrictive abortion laws ahead of a referendum in the coming months.

In a defeat for the Church and the Vatican, Ireland backed same-sex marriage in a referendum in 2015.

The last pope to visit Ireland was Pope John Paul in 1979, the same year Varadkar was born.

Ireland and the Vatican have only recently put an end to years of difficult relations.

In 2011, Dublin stunned the Vatican by closing its embassy to the Vatican, bringing relations between the once ironclad allies to an all-time low.

The closure followed a row earlier that year over the Irish Church’s handling of sex abuse cases and accusations that the Vatican had encouraged secrecy.

Ireland was the only major country of ancient Catholic tradition without an embassy to the Vatican until a scaled-down embassy was reopened in 2014.

Former Prime Minister Enda Kenny said after meeting the pope in 2016 that if he decided to visit Northern Ireland, the Dublin government would help facilitate the visit.

At the time, UTV television quoted the late Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness of Northern Ireland as saying: “I think there is no prospect whatsoever of him coming to Ireland and him not coming to the north.”

The Vatican did not say why the trip would not include other parts of Ireland or Northern Ireland.

Additional reporting by Conor Humphries in Dublin, Editing by Toby Chopra and Alison Williams

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