Church leaders say they learned of Higgins’s concerns with centenary event title this week

‘Of course we would have looked at that’ if aware of issue – Church of Ireland Primate

Catholic Primate of All Ireland Archbishop Eamon Martin: ‘We were really hopeful and believed the President would be able to attend.’ Photograph: Peter Morrison/PA

Catholic Primate of All Ireland Archbishop Eamon Martin: ‘We were really hopeful and believed the President would be able to attend.’ Photograph: Peter Morrison/PA

 

Church leaders became aware of President Michael D Higgins’s concerns with the title of their centenary service to commemorate partition and the formation of Northern Ireland only days ago, Catholic Primate of All Ireland Archbishop Eamon Martin has said.

Speaking about Mr Higgins’s concerns that the title of the event was politicised, Archbishop Martin said, “we only learned that this week”.

“We were really hopeful and believed the President would be able to attend,” he said, but they had to respect his reasons.

Church of Ireland Primate Archbishop John McDowell said: “If someone had made us aware back then that there was a problem with it, of course we would have looked at that.”

The two men were speaking on RTÉ’s This Week programme in the ongoing controversy over the President’s decision not to attend the service in St Patrick’s Cathedral in Co Armagh next month.

Mr Higgins said earlier this week that in March he had made known his concerns about the title of the event, which was not “a neutral statement politically” and he would not be able to attend if it was not changed.

Archbishop McDowell said they were not trying to make a political statement, but he said “the formation of Northern Ireland and the partition of Ireland are opposite sides of the same coin in a way. You can’t have one in one sense without the other. Both are historical facts.”

Archbishop McDowell acknowledged that “there was a bump in the road just before St Patrick’s Day when our event got included with a list of events which weren’t of a similar nature at all, and I know there were officials in Dublin who were very upset at that. But even before they communicated that to us we put out a statement saying that our event was completely different . . . And got it back on track as something we were in control of and was a service of Christian worship.”

They were keen to have Mr Higgins attend because “of the man he is, someone who over a lifetime has given himself to peacemaking, reconciliation and to doing what we hope we’re doing here, which is to create space to have conversations about subjects that are difficult, that are contentious, but in an atmosphere of mutual respect”.

Archbishop Martin rejected claims of naivety in their handling of the issue. “We are not naive,” he said, adding that they realised the “very contentious space” the issue represented and that “anything at all connected with partition is in danger of being interpreted in a polarised manner”.

He said the churches had organised a range of events and this event was to be a moment of prayer to pursue the things that make for peace.

Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Michael McGrath said the Government would consider an invitation to the event if one is extended.

Asked on the same programme about apparent divisions in Fianna Fáil over whether a Government Minister should attend the Co Armagh event, Mr McGrath said: “It’s important that we try to tone down the debate and avoid division and acrimony.”

He said, “We don’t want to see a situation where tensions are escalated. The Government will consider this in a calm and mature way if and when an invitation is extended to us.”

He did not believe the controversy marked a setback in relationships and the Government’s Shared Island Unit had been focused on reaching out, dialogue and having co-operation in areas of common interests.

“We will get through this and I don’t think we should make too much of one particular church event in relation to a commemoration,” he said.

Other events

Earlier, Minister of State Joe O’Brien said the event attended by Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney in Belfast on Friday and the church centenary service to which the President has been invited next month were not the same.

Mr Coveney attended the On These Steps event at the Presbyterian church in Ireland’s Union Theological College, promoted by the Presbyterian church as a “special event marking the role played by Union Theological College in hosting Northern Ireland’s Parliament in 1921, and the centenary of the partition of Ireland and creation of Northern Ireland that same year”.

Questions have been raised about why Mr Coveney could attend such an event but the President should not attend a church event about the same issue next month.

Mr O’Brien said, however, that “they were different events and it would be important I think to compare the manner in which the invitations were sent”.

When asked on RTÉ’s The Week in Politics if there was a divided policy between Merrion Street and Áras an Uachtaráin, Mr O’Brien stated that “it is important to say as well that the President is independent and he makes his own decisions on this”.

The event was also attended by Sinn Féin Stormont Minister Declan Kearney. The party has said that if invited to the church centenary commemoration next month it would decline the invitation.

The party’s Roscommon-Galway TD Claire Kerrane said the upcoming event “is a commemoration to commemorate partition on our island”.

The event on Friday was a discussion and “we are always open to a discussion, to a conversation, to listening to each other”, she said.

“But we will not commemorate partition on our island,” said Ms Kerrane, which she said was still ongoing, adding that people lived with the consequences of partition every day.

Aontú TD Peadar Tóibín said it would be “absolutely wrong” for the Government to send a Minister to the Armagh event and a “snub” to the President of Ireland.

People Before Profit TD Richard Boyd Barrett also believed no Government representative should attend the commemoration. He said partition was a disaster for the country both north and south.