By Philip Pullella
VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Pope Francis will make the first papal trip to Ireland in nearly 40 years, the country's prime minister said on Monday, amid signs he could also become the first Roman Catholic pope to visit Northern Ireland.
The Argentine-born pontiff confirmed the visit in 2018 to Prime Minister Enda Kenny during a meeting at the Vatican in which the Irish leader tried to put an end to years of difficult relations between the Vatican and Dublin.
The late Pope John Paul visited the island in 1979 but could not go north because of violence between Protestant loyalists who want the province to stay in the United Kingdom and Catholic nationalists who want it to unite with the Irish Republic.
A delicate power-sharing agreement between the two sides in 1998 ended three decades of violence that cost over 3,600 lives. Despite some continued activity by militants, security would now be much less a problem than before that peace deal.
"We discussed what he might do ... and obviously if that means that he also travels to Northern Ireland, then we will assist in cooperating in making whatever arrangements," Kenny told reporters after his meeting with the pope.
In Northern Ireland, UTV television quoted Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness as saying, "I think there is no prospect whatsoever of him coming to Ireland and him not coming to the north."
The province's most famous Protestant leader, the late Presbyterian preacher Ian Paisley, once railed against John Paul as the antichrist. But after the 1998 Good Friday agreement, he turned around and agreed to become the province's first minister and share power with his onetime Catholic foes.
His successor as first minister, Democratic Unionist Party leader Arlene Foster, said she would be willing to meet the pope if he travels to Northern Ireland. But she said in a statement the invitation must come from the British Foreign Office.
Kenny indicated he believed Francis, who will attend a worldwide meeting of Catholic families in Dublin, would also go to the north. He would need an invitation from local authorities and at least the tacit agreement of the British government.
"This is a pope who has visited places that people did not expect him to visit," Kenny said. "He is deliberately moving the Church towards the people and particularly towards those who are poor and dispossessed."
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.
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.
In a defeat for the Church and the Vatican, Ireland backed same-sex marriage in a referendum last year.
(Additional reporting by Conor Humphries in Dublin; Editing by Tom Heneghan)