DUP criticism of decision not to attend NI ceremony is ‘a bit much’, President says

Michael D Higgins rejects accusations of snub after declining to attend service with queen

President Michael D Higgins with Queen Elizabeth at Windsor Castle during the President’s state visit to Britain in 2014. Photograph: Alan Betson

President Michael D Higgins with Queen Elizabeth at Windsor Castle during the President’s state visit to Britain in 2014. Photograph: Alan Betson

 

It may have taken almost two days for President Michael D Higgins to outline finally his reasons for declining to attend a religious ceremony in Co Armagh alongside Queen Elizabeth next month.

But when he broke his silence on the controversy last night, the President strongly stood over his decision and rejected emphatically any suggestion of a snub or a boycott from him.

The kernel of the problem, he said, was the title of the interdenominational service on October 21st, which stated it would “mark the centenaries of the partition of Ireland and the formation of Northern Ireland”.

It was the reference to the “partition of Ireland” that caused the greatest difficulty, he said, as it politicised the event in way that made it inappropriate for him to attend.

“An invitation to a religious service or a religious event had in fact become a political statement,” said the President.

“You could understand that the title you give to the thing would affect the decision of the propriety of [whether or not] a head of state should attend.

“I was also referred to as the President of the Republic of Ireland. I am the President of Ireland,” he said.

Mr Higgins gave an extensive interview on the controversy to the Irish media in Rome last night, on the penultimate day of a four-day visit to the Italian capital. The issue has threatened to overshadow his audience with Pope Francis in the Vatican on Friday morning.

“It’s not the event itself [which has caused a problem],” he said. “Reconciliation is fine. People can pray as much as they like. The fact is it is the title.

“The way it is actually put is to mark the partition of Ireland and the creation of the Northern Ireland state.

“I am completely open to anyone in Northern Ireland of the unionist position celebrating that in any way they like.”

He said it was a different thing for the President of Ireland to attend an event bearing that title.

“First of all it is very important to say that this is a decision that I took and it was not part of any boycott of any commemorative institutions,” he said.

Snub

In a reference to Queen Elizabeth, he said: “There is no question of any snub intended to anybody.

“I am not snubbing anyone and I am not part of anyone’s boycott of any other events in Northern Ireland.

“I wish their service well but they understand that I have the right to exercise a discretion as to what I think is appropriate for my attendance.”

He said that he, as President, would at any time welcome a conversation with the queen.

In response to DUP politicians who claimed he had snubbed the event, he replied: “It’s a bit much, to be frank with you. I have gone up to Northern Ireland to take part in events in Queen’s University, in the University of Ulster and so on.

“There often has not been a great deal of traffic down from the DUP people who are criticising me now,” he added.

Asked why the reference to partition was problematic, he pointed out that the Border was officially agreed in 1925 (when the Boundary Commission published its report) and there were other issues at play, including possible coercion. He referred to his Macnamh (Reflection) series of seminars on centenary events, the next of which will examine the 1921 Treaty.

“My commitment is that the Good Friday Agreement leaves all the options for the future open to be decided by consensus.” he said. “The Border is 1925, after all. The Treaty has to be discussed in its fullness [at the Macnamh seminar]. It is not the same as the Good Friday Agreement. What was the context including coercion, you have to to put it all in.

“If you go and sit under a title, I just [could not].”

He added that there was a need for his decision to be treated with respect. “I treat everyone with respect. I only require the same respect for myself and my decision. An invitation is an invitation. It is not an instruction or an injunction.”

The President said people should now move on without “gratuitously insulting each other”.

He said his office would reply to the letter sent by DUP MLA Peter Weir and would do so courteously. He said he appreciated the thoughtful response to the controversy by former UUP leader Michael Nesbitt.

He said there was no question he would revisit his decision. “We are past the point now and I think it is unfortunate.”

He said, in any instance, on the day of the event, he would be hosting the Statistical and Social Inquiry Association of Ireland at Áras an Uachtaráin and replying to Danny McCoy’s presidential address on the economics of sustainability.