The Pope could visit Ireland by 2012, Martin McGuinness said today.
Northern Ireland deputy First Minister said he had "some grounds" for making the prediction when quizzed about Pope Benedict's state visit to Britain.
The senior republican made the claim while giving evidence to a committee at the Stormont Assembly where he was challenged over his failure to take part in the Scottish leg of the Pontiff's recent trip.
Mr McGuinness said the trip was a British state visit and said he would instead be pleased to meet the Pope when he visited Ireland.
The deputy First Minister added: "I also have some grounds for believing that could happen as soon as 2012."Mr McGuinness and First Minister Peter Robinson faced criticism for failing to attend the official reception where the Queen welcomed the Pope to Britain.
But both men said they had already been expected to attend the opening of a new business venture by the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) in Belfast.
The political leaders had been closely associated with the efforts to encourage the NYSE investment which they said provided hundreds of hi-tech jobs.
They dismissed claims at the time that while Mr McGuinness was reluctant to take part in a British State event, Mr Robinson was keen to avoid attending the Pope's reception while his former party leader Ian Paisley was protesting against the visit by the Catholic leader.
Today Mr Robinson, who also met the Assembly committee, repeated his claim that the New York Stock Exchange event was an important longterm commitment.
He rejected accusations that he and Mr McGuinness had failed to show leadership over the Pope's visit and said the jobs announcement was a key part of their diary.
"It was important that we were there and right that we were there," he said."
Mr McGuinness failed to expand on the grounds for his prediction of an imminent Papal visit to Ireland.