Sectarianism, sword and security – the truth behind Pope's visit

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IT WAS an iconic moment, captured by television cameras worldwide. His Holiness Pope John Paul II, robes billowing in the breeze, marked his first moments on Scottish soil on 31 May, 1982 by kneeling and kissing the tarmac at RAF Turnhouse in Edinburgh.

But while the first visit of a reigning pontiff to Scotland went smoothly, behind the scenes the months leading up to his visit had been marked by political fears of a sectarian backlash.

Secret government files released yesterday on International Right To Know Day at the National Archives of Scotland in Edinburgh, reveal arrangements for the visit were fraught with difficulties requiring political "tight-rope walking" and manoeuvring to disguise religious divisions in Scottish society.

The documents are part of around 4,000 government files covering the period 1979 to 1983 now available to the public.

A further 7,000 files covering subsequent years will be made available between now and next May following the Scottish Government's announcement in June to reduce the 30-year secrecy period to 15 years.

Problems around the papal visit ranged from direct objections to his presence, to anguish over explaining why the Sword of Scotland could not be displayed at an exhibition about Catholicism at the City Art Centre in Edinburgh, and the etiquette of allowing the papal helicopter to use Holyrood Park.

The documents show the Free Church of Scotland wrote to Margaret Thatcher, the then prime minister, on 26 February, 1981, urging her to do all in her power to discourage the visit to prevent demonstrations by the Orange Order.

The Rev Maurice Roberts, convener of the Free Church of Scotland's committee on public questions, religion and morals, wrote: "The unhappy conflict in Northern Ireland is now spreading to the city of Glasgow, and the Pope's visit to Scotland will make it all the more difficult for your government to control the situation."

Acknowledging that it might not be possible to stop the visit going ahead, Mr Roberts requests that the Pope's profile is kept very low, especially at official and diplomatic levels and that he is not addressed as "Your Holiness" or "Holy Father".

One of the leading Catholic figures behind the visit, Cardinal Gordon Gray, as president of the Scottish Catholic Heritage Commission, made a request in February 1982 to display the Sword of Scotland, kept at Edinburgh Castle, at the city's art centre to mark the Pope's visit. Cardinal Gray pointed out the sword had been a gift from Pope Julius II to King James IV in 1507.

Letters between government figures show this request created consternation. While security was an issue, yet again the threat from those against the visit was a major consideration.

In March 1982, George Younger, secretary of state for Scotland, wrote to Lord McKay of Clashfern, QC, saying previous requests to display the regalia, including the Sword of Scotland, in 1937 and 1953 had been rejected mainly on the grounds that "an armed guard day and night would be necessary" and the delicate condition of the sword. However, another special security consideration particular to the Pope's visit was detailed in the letter.

Mr Younger's letter continued: "I am in no doubt to make available an integral part of the Scottish regalia from this exhibition would give rise to objections, in particular from those sections of the community opposed to the Pope's visit. This could have serious repercussions and might add to the security risk."

The official reply to Cardinal Gray stated his request was being denied on grounds of security, the fragility of the sword, and lastly the rejections of the previous requests.

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