President Michael D Higgins has stood over his decision to decline an invitation to a religious service in Northern Ireland next month on the grounds that it is political in nature and commemorates the "centenary of the partition of Ireland".
The President last night broke his silence on the controversy and also strongly denied any suggestion of a snub on Queen Elizabeth, who is due to attend the service in Co Armagh in October.
Speaking in Rome during a four-day official visit to the Italian capital, President Higgins said his problem was with the title of the event, which it was stated would “mark the centenaries of the partition of Ireland and the formation of Northern Ireland”. He said the title was politicised and made it inappropriate for him as head of State to attend the event.
“What [had started out as] an invitation to a religious service had in fact become a political statement,” he said. “I was also referred to as the President of the Republic of Ireland. I am the President of Ireland.”
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.”
‘A bit much’
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.”
“There often has not been a great deal of traffic down from the DUP people who are criticising me now,” he added.
He said he would not be revisiting his decision. “We are past the point now and I think it is unfortunate.”
He said on the day of the event he would be hosting the Statistical and Social Inquiry Association of Ireland at Áras an Uachtaráin.
The controversy has threatened to overshadow President Higgins's audience with Pope Francis in the Vatican on Friday morning.
In 2016 Mr Higgins pulled out of a dinner at Belfast City Hall to mark the centenary of the Easter Rising because he said there was no longer cross-party support for the event and he did not want to become embroiled in "political controversy".
Calls to reconsider
There were were further calls in Northern Ireland yesterday for the President to reconsider his decision. DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson said he had written to Mr Higgins seeking an explanation and had "encouraged President Higgins to change his mind". He also said it was "difficult not to conclude that there is politics at play here".
Alliance MP Stephen Farry also said he hoped Mr Higgins would reconsider his decision, as did the Independent group of Senators in the Oireachtas.
However, SDLP leader Colum Eastwood defended Mr Higgins and his record on reconciliation, saying that people "should not read too much into this" and should "take him at his word when he says he can't be there".
Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney is due to attend an event marking the centenary of the creation of Northern Ireland later on Friday.