Taoiseach Micheál Martin has dismissed suggestions that Anglo-Irish relations have been damaged by the decision of President Michael D Higgins not to attend a commemoration in Armagh next month to mark the 100th anniversary of the establishment of Northern Ireland.
"I think the relationship between the United Kingdom and Ireland has been transformed in the last 30 years and this will not harm it in any way and I know the President looks forward to working with the Queen and will continue to build relationships, north and south," said Mr Martin.
Speaking at the official opening the new National Food Innovation Hub at the Teagasc Food Research Centre at Moorepark in Fermoy in North Cork, Mr Martin moved to play down any suggestions that President Higgins's decision could damage reconciliation on the island of Ireland.
“First of all, I respect the President’s decision and I understand where the President is coming from and I think he has articulated and he’s given his reasons and I would also say that we know that the President has really given a lot of time to commemoration and takes it very seriously.
“He is also very committed to reconciliation - we don’t need to question his bona fides in that respect at all - and he has a long standing commitment to peace and reconciliation on the island and I think, he made his decision now and as he said himself, we should move on from that,” he said.
President Higgins broke his silence on Thursday night on why he was choosing not to attend the inter-denominational service organised by the four main Christian churches and scheduled for October 21st in Armagh which will be attended by Queen Elizabeth II.
President Higgins, whose father and uncles fought with the Old IRA in the War of Independence just prior to partition, rejected emphatically that his decision not to attend the centenary event at St Patrick's Church of Ireland Cathedral in Armagh was in any way a snub or a boycott by him.
The problem was the event’s title which stated it would “mark the centenaries of the partition of Ireland and the formation of Northern Ireland” with the “partition of Ireland” reference causing difficulty as it politicised the event in way that made it inappropriate for him to attend, he said.
Speaking on Friday afternoon, Mr Martin said that any invitation from the organisers of the service of “reflection and hope” to the Irish government to send a representative would be considered by the government but to date no such invitation had been received.
Asked if he had information on the chronology behind the issuing of the invitation to President Higgins and whether any contact had been made with the Irish Government Secretariat in Belfast prior to the invite being issued, Mr Martin said he did not any information on the sequence of events.
And asked if the matter might have been better choreographed and soundings taken in advance if the invite had come from the British government rather than from the four churches, Mr Martin rejected any suggestion that the churches had shown a naivety in their approach to the issue.
“I don’t have the sequence of events - the various contacts that would have been made between the President’s Office and the organisers - the invitation was to the President to attend, the President has to make a decision and it’s at the discretion of the President to make that decision.
“I don’t believe so (that there was a naivety on the part of the organisers) - I think the churches are acting in good faith as well, the churches are organising this and they sent an invitation to the President and no more than that,” he said,
In a joint statement issued on Thursday, the four main church leaders said the service was “part of their wider programme of collective engagement around the 1921 centenaries, with an emphasis on their common Christian commitment to peace, healing and reconciliation”.
The service was “offered as a contribution to the work of building community and deepening relationships” they said in a statement in which they explained that Armagh had been chosen as it was the ecclesiastical capital of Ireland since the 5th century.
The statement was signed by the Catholic and Church of Ireland Primates of All Ireland, Dr Eamon Martin and Rev John McDowell, Presbyterian Moderator, Rev David Bruce, President of the Methodist Church, Rev Dr Sahr Yambasu and President of the Irish Council of Churches, Rev Dr Ivan Patterson.