Pope's address to parliament vetoed, National Archives files reveal
Margaret Thatcher ruled out suggested speech by Pope John Paul II amid fears that Ian Paisley would ‘make a nuisance’
The Guardian, Friday 30 December 2011
Suggestions that the pope be given the honour of addressing both houses of parliament on his first visit to Britain were discouraged by senior advisers and vetoed by Margaret Thatcher.
Fears that the Northern Ireland MP Ian Paisley, leader of the Democratic Unionist party, would disrupt the event and the fact that Pope John Paul II was not head of the “established church” proved decisive.
Preparations for the visit, which finally went ahead in 1982, started nearly two years earlier. Confirmation of the invitation caused a flurry of opposition from fringe evangelical groups.
The prime ministerial file on the event, released to the National Archives, contains a letter from the Protestant Reformation Society objecting to the arrangements as well as the organisation’s pamphlet, entitled Ten Reasons Why the Pope Should Not Be Invited to Make a State Visit to Britain. Paisley was also recorded as having telephoned Downing Street seeking details.
Two peers, Lord Bessborough and Lord Ingleby, had suggested the pope be asked to address both houses. The opportunity is rarely granted, although both the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, and Barack Obama have delivered speeches at Westminster in the past few years.
Lord Hailsham, the lord chancellor, wrote to No 10 saying there was likely to be a “good measure of support” for the proposal although he had spoken to the duke of Norfolk, the most senior Catholic peer, who advised the “greatest caution” about any parliamentary address.
Drafting advice for Thatcher in March 1981, the cabinet secretary, Sir Robert Armstrong, pointed out that the pope had not spoken in either the French or Irish parliaments during recent visits.
“It would look very odd if the pope were to address members of the two houses of parliament in a country which has an established church of which he is not head,” he wrote.
“I also have it in my mind that, if there were to be such an occasion, it would be impossible to exclude Mr Paisley as a member of parliament and he would be almost bound to come and make a nuisance of himself.
“My private information is that both the cardinal archbishop of Westminster and the duke of Norfolk do not favour the idea.”
On the letter, Thatcher noted that she agreed that “such a course of action would have the gravest consequences and would damage the pope, the established church and parliament.”
The prime minister, the daughter of a methodist lay preacher, added: “Perhaps we could discuss this in cabinet, but I have no doubt that the view will be strongly against.”
Paisley went on to be ejected from the European parliament in 1986 for heckling Thatcher and in 1988 for denouncing the pope as the “antichrist”.