MARTIN McGuinness, the Northern Ireland Deputy First MinisteR, is planning to attend a religious event on Iona marking the birth of Christianity in Scotland.
The Sinn Fein politician is scheduled to make a rare trip to Scotland to take part in the 2013 Iona celebrations commemorating the 1,450th anniversary of St Columba arriving in the country.
A series of events are planned on the tiny island off the southwest coast of Mull, in the Inner Hebrides, including a religious service at Iona Abbey on May 19.
Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond and a representative from the Irish Parliament have also been invited.
A spokeswoman for The Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister in Northern Ireland said: “Mr McGuinness is planning to go to the Iona event. But ministers’ diaries are always subject to change.”
Mr McGuinness, who last year shook hands with the Queen for the first time on her visit to Northern Ireland, is going in the place of First Minister Peter Robinson, who is unavailable for 19 May.
A spokeswoman for the organising committee behind the Iona 2013 celebrations said: “It is not a big deal. It is a cultural event, rather than a political one.
“There is a big guest list and we are hoping to have a number of profile people attending, including many heads of Scottish churches.
“We are expecting the service at Iona Abbey to be a very big event. The island is already booked up.”
Preparations for the celebrations, being supported by the Scottish Government, VisitScotland, Argyll and Bute Council, CalMac, Historic Scotland and the local community, are well under way.
Already, the Iona community celebrated the return of the world’s first Celtic High Cross in time for Easter.
St Oran’s Cross, which dates back to the eighth century, has returned to the island after undergoing reconstruction work.
Iona, which has a population of around 125, has a long and illustrious history, and is well known as being ‘The cradle of Christianity in Scotland’, attracting over 100,000 visitors a year, including many pilgrims.
St Columba was an Irish monk who travelled to Scotland in 563 and brought Christianity to the Picts.
He reputedly made the first sighting of the Loch Ness monster two years later.