Martin McGuinness, Northern Ireland deputy first minister, says he has 'grounds' to believe a visit may happen

A papal visit to Ireland could take place as soon as 2012, according to Martin McGuinness, Northern Ireland’s deputy first minister.

He said this week that Pope Benedict may visit Ireland soon, adding that he had “some grounds for believing that [it] could happen as soon as 2012”.

If Pope Benedict did visit Ireland in 2012, it is likely the trip would coincide with the 50th International Eucharistic Congress, held in Dublin that year.

Mr McGuinness raised the issue in response to questions about why he and First Minister Peter Robinson did not meet the Pope last week.

The Pope had met the first ministers of both Wales and Scotland at Holyroodhouse while meeting the Queen last Thursday.

Mr Robinson and Mr McGuiness claimed they could not have attending the meeting because of a prior commitment opening a building in Belfast by NYSE Euronext, which owns the New York Stock Exchange.

The First Minister defended his priorities, saying it “was important that we were there and right that we were there”. Mr McGuiness called the papal visit a British state visit and said that he would be happy to meet the Pope if he visited Ireland.

The Church in Ireland has struggled to recover since the Ryan and Murphy reports issued last year exposed the cover up of clerical abuse of children over decades.

The Vatican’s decision not to accept the resignation of Dublin Auxiliary Bishops Eamonn Walsh and Ray Field was also met with widespread anger.

In March the Pope issued a letter that was read out in every church in Ireland, in which he apologised for the clerical abuse scandal.

But Irish ambassador to the Holy See Noel Fahey has denied any knowledge of plans for the Pope to visit Ireland, amid rumours of a papal visit “as soon as 2012”.

Speaking to the Irish Times, Mr Fahey, said that he had no knowledge of any plans for a Papal visit to Ireland. Sources inside the Vatican were also sceptical about the rumour.

The denial comes after Northern Ireland’s Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness suggested that a Papal visit to Ireland “could happen as soon as 2012”.

Mr McGuinness’ statement was made in response to questions were raised at a Stormont committeee meeting about why he and First Minister Peter Robinson had not met the Pope in Scotland last week.

Mr McGuinness answered that the Papal Visit was to Britain, and said that he would be pleased to meet the Pope if he should visit Ireland, saying that he had “some grounds for believing that could happen as soon as 2012”.