Government did not advise President Higgins against attending service, it says

Donaldson says many may reach conclusion decision not to attend is based on politics

President Michael D Higgins at the Quirinal Palace in Rome as part of his four-day visit to the Italian capital. Photograph: Maxwells/PA Wire

President Michael D Higgins at the Quirinal Palace in Rome as part of his four-day visit to the Italian capital. Photograph: Maxwells/PA Wire

 

The Government offered no advice to President Michael D Higgins on whether or not he should attend a centenary church commemoration of partition and the establishment of Northern Ireland.

In a statement from the Taoiseach’s office, a spokesman said the President’s diary “is a matter for the President and it would not be appropriate to comment”.

The spokesman said that the Government will consider sending a representative to the event in Co Armagh next month, which Queen Elizabeth is to attend, if an invitation is received.

A Government source said the President may consult with the Taoiseach if he or she believes that an invitation from outside the State could be contentious. The Department of Foreign Affairs, which handles Northern Ireland, may also be consulted, but was not in this case.

Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney will be attending an event on Friday to mark the centenary of Northern Ireland.

The Presbyterian Church in Ireland is hosting a special commemorative event at Union Theological College in Belfast, almost 100 years to the day since MPs and Senators met there for the first time as the Parliament of Northern Ireland.

Earlier, the Independent Group of Senators has added its voice to concerns that President Higgins had declined the invitation.

In a letter to the President the Senators said they were uncertain as to why he was not in a position to attend the event, but “we are deeply concerned it may be misinterpreted”.

The Independent Senators said: “We earnestly suggest, if possible that you should reconsider the matter with a view to attending the event as we believe your attendance has significant potential to advance the cause of reconciliation between the different traditions in Northern Ireland and on this island.”

The Senators noted that under Article 13.8 of the Constitution “we are precluded from raising this matter in either House of the Oireachtas.

“We feel, however, that your attendance at the event, if possible, would significantly advance the cause of reconciliation and dispel any suggestion of unnecessary political division on this island.”

The letter was signed by group leader Senator Victor Boyhan and Senators Gerard Craughwell, Sharon Keogan, Michael McDowell, Rónan Mullen and David Norris.

Strong calls

The President has been facing increasingly strong calls to explain why he declined an invitation to attend the service.

It emerged on Wednesday that Mr Higgins would not be at the event scheduled for next month in Co Armagh, although it is not clear why he has decided against attending.

Some politicians in the North have appealed to Mr Higgins to provide more information as to the reason for his decision, with the DUP, Ulster Unionists and Alliance Party asking for clarity.

DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson and Alliance MP Stephen Farry called on Mr Higgins to reconsider his decision and attend the service, with Mr Donaldson describing it as “regrettable” and a “retrograde step” that was “based on politics”.

The Service of Reflection and Hope will mark 100 years since the partition of Ireland and the creation of Northern Ireland.

It is organised by the leaders of the main Christian churches in Ireland, who had anticipated that Mr Higgins would take part as head of State.

His spokesman told The Irish Times on Tuesday that Mr Higgins was “not in a position to attend” the service.

Mr Higgins, who is on a four-day official visit to Rome, has so far declined to comment further. He will meet Pope Francis on Friday.

The President has not responded to the suggestion by the DUP on Wednesday night that he was “snubbing” the service, or that he was joining nationalists in “boycotting” such events.

The President does not need to request permission from the Government to travel to Northern Ireland so the decision was made by his office, without reference to the Department of the Taoiseach.

Sources said on Wednesday that a Government representative will attend the service but also said an invitation to attend had not been received yet.

Speaking on BBC Radio Ulster’s Stephen Nolan Show on Thursday morning, Mr Donaldson said he hoped Mr Higgins would “rethink this decision because it is not conducive to the kind of respectful relationship which we want to see for the head of state of our neighbouring jurisdiction not to attend a service of this nature.

‘Many taboos’

“In the absence of clarity around the reason for President Higgins not attending this service I think many may reach the conclusion that it is a decision based on politics,” he said.

“When you consider the standard that Her Majesty the Queen has set when she went to Dublin in that historic visit and indeed went to Cork and other parts of the Republic of Ireland as well, she crossed many boundaries in the visit, she broke many taboos.

“I think she set a lead and a clear example of how to do reconciliation,” Mr Donaldson said.

“I think it is a retrograde step, it takes us backwards when the President of the Republic of Ireland cannot attend a service of this nature which has been called by the churches.

“The churches are setting an example here,” he said, adding that “sets the tone for this service and it is regrettable that President Higgins is unable to attend”.

Mr Farry said he hoped Mr Higgins would reconsider his decision, saying “this event is very much in keeping with the reconciliation efforts of successive Irish presidents and the queen over recent years, and the inclusive approach to marking the decade of centenaries.”

Meanwhile, Ireland’s main church leaders have said the Armagh event “is offered as a contribution to the work of building community and deepening relationships”.

Marking centenaries of the partition of Ireland and formation of Northern Ireland, it takes place at St Patrick’s Church of Ireland Cathedral, Armagh on October 21st.

The statement was issued by Catholic Primate Archbishop Eamon Martin, Church of Ireland Primate Archbishop John McDowell, Presbyterian Moderator Rev Dr David Bruce, Methodist President Rev Dr Sahr Yambasu, and President of the Irish Council of Churches Rev Dr Ivan Patterson.

They said in a statement that the service was part of a wider programme “of collective engagement around the 1921 centenaries, with an emphasis on their common Christian commitment to peace, healing and reconciliation.”

Armagh was chosen “ due to its significance as Ireland’s ecclesiastical capital – a status which has its origins in the fifth century when the present site of the Church of Ireland cathedral was presented to St Patrick for building his ‘great stone church’.”

This “Christian act of worship will involve people from across the community, from diverse backgrounds and traditions, and with different beliefs and aspirations, coming together to pray for the healing of past hurts and to seek God’s guidance in a spirit of hope for the future,” they said.

They also referred to joint statement they issued on St Patrick’s Day last, which emphasised the need to “be intentional in creating spaces for encounter with those who are different from us, and those who may feel marginalised in the narratives that have shaped our community identity’ and, in doing so, ’to face difficult truths about failings in our own leadership in the work of peace and reconciliation’.”

That statement also said that “some may struggle with the concept of a shared history when it comes to the centenary of the partition of Ireland, the establishment of Northern Ireland and the resulting reconfiguration of British-Irish relationships.” It continued: “What is undeniable, however, is the reality that we have to live in a shared space on these islands.”

As Churches they acknowledged “and lament the times that we failed to bring to a fearful and divided society that message of the deeper connection that binds us, despite our different identities, as children of God, made in His image and likeness. We have often been captive churches; not captive to the Word of God, but to the idols of state and nation.”

‘Role to play’

But they had “a role to play in providing spaces outside political structures that give expression to our inter-connectedness and shared concern for the common good.”

Separately, both the Catholic and Presbyterian Churches are holding events this month to mark the centenary of partition and the Northern Ireland state. The Northern Catholic Bishops are hosting a series of historical talks online led by political historian, columnist and broadcaster Dr Éamon Phoenix on Mondays to October 4th next.

The Presbyterian Church in Ireland is hosting a special commemorative event at Union Theological College in Belfast, almost 100 years to the day since MPs and Senators met there for the first time as the Parliament of Northern Ireland. It was 11 years later before it moved to Stormont. Additional reporting – PA.