Armagh service attendees hope to switch focus to reconciliation

Peacebuilding activist urges participants to move on from Higgins controversy

 Deputy first minister of Northern Ireland Martin McGuinness shakes hands with Queen Elizabeth as former       first minister Peter Robinson   looks on in Belfast in 2012.  Photograph: Paul Faith/Getty

Deputy first minister of Northern Ireland Martin McGuinness shakes hands with Queen Elizabeth as former first minister Peter Robinson looks on in Belfast in 2012. Photograph: Paul Faith/Getty

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Two people attending the church service in Armagh on Thursday marking the centenary of Irish partition have said the focus must be on future reconciliation rather than the controversy over President Michael D Higgins’s decision not to attend.

Mr Higgins last month declined an invitation to the service organised by church leaders because he said the title of the event, marking the centenary of the partition of Ireland and the formation of Northern Ireland, was politicised and as head of State it would not be appropriate for him to go.

Queen Elizabeth on Wednesday cancelled a two-day visit to Northern Ireland, which was due to include her attending the church service, on medical advice.

The chief executive of peacebuilding charity Co-operation Ireland, Peter Sheridan, told The Irish Times that reconciliation “does not stop with this one event” and it was important “to recognise when setbacks happen [and] to work harder to make sure the next one isn’t a setback”.

The charity was closely involved in the the queen’s visit to Ireland in 2011 and the President’s trip to the UK three years later. It facilitated the event at which the handshake took place between the queen and former Sinn Féin politician and IRA member Martin McGuinness.

“I think there’s a danger of this defining everything . . . we had the two state visits, the handshake with Martin McGuinness, all those were important, so we just have to redouble our efforts,” Mr Sheridan said.

“We have to move on beyond this now, it’s one event that didn’t work out the way people had imagined, whatever the rights and wrongs of that. We’ve been through that discussion – we have to think beyond that now and to the future and how we continue to strengthen and deepen relationships on this island.”

He added: “The British-Irish, North-South, internal relationships are all a key part of the future . . . we need to skill ourselves up in recognising that we have to continue to make improvements in everybody’s interests.”

Significance of Irish language

Linda Ervine, an Irish-language development officer who runs the Turas project for Protestant communities in east Belfast, said she hoped the service would be a “healing event” and that was why she was attending.

She also said she was “very much aware of the significance of Irish having a place within the service and a recognition that this is part and parcel of the life of Northern Ireland as well”.

The controversy, she said, underlined the fact that “we’re not there yet, we’re still very much on a journey and we have to push ahead and there will be bumps in the road”.

“We can’t ignore what this year is and what this year means, and obviously we recognise it means different things to different people and that’s what Northern Ireland is about,” she said.

“I think it’s going to be an important day as a symbol of the leadership of the churches coming together, acknowledging what has gone before and what could possibly be, and that united front interests me.

“The churches have been part of the division in Northern Ireland in the past . . . so to have them standing together and talking about a future, that’s an important symbol.”

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