Government likely to send high-ranking Minister to attend Armagh service

Move is a display of difference with the President, say some Government sources

President Michael D Higgins refused an invitation from the five main Christian churches to attend the  Armagh  service. Photograph: Maxwells

President Michael D Higgins refused an invitation from the five main Christian churches to attend the Armagh service. Photograph: Maxwells

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The Government is likely to send a high-ranking Cabinet Minister to attend the Armagh ecumenical service to mark the Northern Ireland centenary, in a move some Government sources accept is a display of difference with President Michael D Higgins.

Whilst no invitation from the organisers of the event had been received late yesterday, it is accepted in Government that a representative, potentially the Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney or the Minister for Justice Heather Humphreys, will attend.

Mr Higgins refused an invitation from the five main Christian churches to attend the event, as he believed that the title of the event was politicised, and it would not be appropriate for him to attend.

The organisers insisted it had never been their intention to politicise the event.

Yesterday there was further confusion about the contacts between the organisers of the event and the Áras.

The moderator of the Presbyterian Church, the Rev Dr David Bruce, said while Mr Higgins may have raised issues about the title of the event, “he didn’t raise them with us”. The Irish Times understands that Mr Higgins had contact with the Department of Foreign Affairs on this matter.

Answering questions about the affair last week in Rome, Mr Higgins said: “In the week before St Patrick’s Day I addressed these words and said [to the organisers] if these words and this title suggested remain it may be that I will have to wish you well.”

Later Dr Bruce said that the organisers had been dealing with the Department of Foreign Affairs, and that if the President had concerns “those concerns did not reach us”.

There was further criticism of the President from DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson, who described Mr Higgins’ decision as “just a flat refusal to attend”.

‘Challenging issue’

“The rejection of this event by the Irish head of State signals to unionists that the Presidential office does not respect Northern Ireland as an entity and has little or no interest in a shared future with unionism,” Mr Donaldson said.

Mr Donaldson claimed disrespect for the existence of Northern Ireland “indicates that Michael D Higgins’ office is really a united Ireland champion rather than a leader of reconciliation”.

Speaking in New York Taoiseach Micheál Martin said the Government would consider the invitation from the churches and make a “collective decision”.

While Mr Martin was careful to say he “fully respects” the President’s decision not to attend, a number of Government sources said sending a senior Minister to the event is an indication of a difference in approach between the Áras and the Government.

Mr Martin said commemoration is a “challenging issue in itself and it has to be done sensitively”.