Pope Francis’s confirmation yesterday to Irish premier Enda Kenny yesterday that he will be visiting Ireland in August 2018 might be many things, but what it was not — at least apparently — was news.

Francis announced at the end of the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia last year that he would be in Dublin for the next one, and back in May Archbishop Diarmuid Martin confirmed it after seeing the pope.  Francis told Martin: “I will come,” before adding: “If I don’t come, my successor will come.”

But what we learned yesterday was that Francis is also keen to travel across the border, to Northern Ireland, completing Pope St. John Paul II’s aborted 1979 visit when rising sectarian tensions in the province meant he had to limit his Irish tour to the Republic.

Speaking after his 25-minute audience, Kenny said: “I want to say that the Pope has confirmed that he is coming to Ireland for the World Meeting of the Families,” adding: “We discussed what he might do and obviously that is a matter for His Holiness and the Bishops and if that means that he also travels to Northern Ireland, then we will co-operate and assist in whatever arrangements are arrived at.”

Of course, nothing is confirmed until it is confirmed — usually six months ahead of the visit itself. Yet the reaction in northern Ireland has been remarkably warm.

Northern Ireland First Minister Arlene Foster, leader of the once staunchly anti-Catholic Democratic Unionists, has made clear she would want to meet him, at least as head of state.

Meanwhile Dr. John Dunlop, former moderator of Presybterian Church in Ireland, said last night on television that the Protestant community should see the visit as an opportunity to “get over institutionalized anti-Catholicism,” and suggested that Northern Irish Protestants should read Evangelii Gaudium prior to the pope’s visit.

The reaction “demonstrates just how far Northern Ireland has come and how far people have moved on these questions,” Michael Kelly, editor of The Irish Catholic newspaper, told Crux.

Part of the reason was what Kelly calls “a decoupling of Protestantism and Unionism.”

“Nowadays none of the Unionist leaders are preachers in any of the Protestant traditions. There just isn’t the same theological resistance.”

What has also changed since 1979, of course, is the 1998 power-sharing agreement between the two sides in Northern Ireland, bringing to an end three decades of violence that cost over 3,600 lives.

After meeting Francis, Kenny said the pope was “aware of the Churches’ role in the peace process” that led to the Good Friday Agreement, and no one doubts that a key aim of the visit would be to bolster that process.

Yet there is clearly also a geopolitical dimension.

The (Catholic) Primate of all Ireland, the Archbishop of Armagh, Eamonn Martin (no relation), said the visit would be a “deeply symbolic and powerful moment” for those in Northern Ireland, coming after the 2011 state visit of the Queen to the Republic of Ireland (the first in 100 years), and the first ever state visit of an Irish President, Michael Higgins, to the UK in 2014.

But what he did not add was that Francis will also cross a border that will eventually divide the UK from the European Union once Brexit is triggered in March next year.

No one yet knows how this will work. In the Brexit referendum, Northern Ireland (which forms part of the UK) voted to remain in the European Union 56-44 percent.

If a “hard border” ends up being imposed, complete with passport checks and tariffs, it will undermine the efforts over the past decade to dissolve that border in favor of free movement, with possible consequences for the Good Friday Agreement. If “partition” — a highly emotive term in Ireland — becomes a reality again, it could have profound consequences for people both sides of the border.

The Irish border question was defined by the incoming EU president, Maltese prime minister Joseph Muscat, as “one of the most politically sensitive issues” he faces, while Irish opposition leader Micheál Martin says this is “one of the most important challenges ever faced by governments on these islands.”

Arguably, it throws into question the Good Friday Agreement itself, which legally assumed that both Ireland and the UK were part of the European Union. Take away freedom of movement of people and goods across the Irish border, and the political effect could be dynamite.

Sinn Fein, which campaigns for a united Ireland, has seized the opportunity, arguing that Brexit has changed the whole nature of the debate.

“For English and Welsh votes to drag the north of Ireland out of the EU against the will of its people would, like partition itself, be yet another travesty of democracy and would undermine the Good Friday Agreement,” said Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams. He argues that it is “incomprehensible” to have one  part of Ireland belonging to the EU and one outside it, and is calling for a vote on unification to take place in the next political term.

James Brokenshire, the British government’s secretary of state for Northern  Ireland, rejects that analysis, saying there is no evidence of a change in opinion in Northern Ireland, and therefore no need to call a referendum under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement.

But into this stand-off comes the papal visit to Ireland of 2018. What effect could it have?

The short answer is that it could boost the cause of unification on the island, especially if by 2018 the Northern Irish are suffering from the consequences (real or feared) of Brexit.

While deferring to the sovereign will of the Northern Irish people to remain part of the UK, Francis’s message will naturally appeal to the shared island story, the history of monks and saints which is so key to Ireland’s heritage — while being framed within a family story of inclusivity.

It is a message which could well represent something of a breakthrough in Ireland, because it will be framed in a context of respect for diversity and pluralism. And it could well come at just the right time — when Northern Ireland feels resentful at being dragged out of the EU.

In his 2018 visit, Francis, in short, is uniquely placed to suggest that Irish unification does not mean the absorption or annexation of one part of the island by another, but the creation of something new, a “reconciled diversity” based on a “culture of encounter” in which Ireland’s squabbling traditions come together as one — within the European Union.