Higgins not advised by Government as to attendance at centenary event

Taoiseach’s office rejects Donaldson suggestion about diary as ‘matter for the President’

President Michael D Higgins:  The SDLP leader, Colum Eastwood, said people should “take him at his word when he says he can’t be there”.  Photograph:  Maxwells/PA

President Michael D Higgins: The SDLP leader, Colum Eastwood, said people should “take him at his word when he says he can’t be there”. Photograph: Maxwells/PA

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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.

DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson told reporters at Stormont he had written to the President seeking an explanation for his decision not to attend the event at St Patrick’s Church of Ireland Cathedral in Armagh next month, which Queen Elizabeth is to attend.

Suggesting there had been Irish Government involvement in the decision, Mr Donaldson said it would be “better if we had clarity on the reasons why” he had chosen not to attend but that, in the absence of such an explanation, it was “difficult not to conclude that there is politics at play here”.

Many, he said, “will see that as a snub in terms of marking the occasion of Northern Ireland’s centenary”.

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”.

Contentious

The spokesman said the Government would consider sending a representative if an invitation was received.

A Government source said the President may consult with the Taoiseach if they believed 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.

The SDLP leader Colum Eastwood on Thursday 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”.

The chief executive of peacebuilding charity Co-operation Ireland, Peter Sheridan, told The Irish Times there could be a genuine reason the President was unable to attend the church service but that it may have been an “opportunity missed” to achieve healing.

‘Politics are difficult’

The charity was closely involved in Queen Elizabeth II’s visit to Ireland in 2011 and the President’s trip to the UK three years later, and facilitated the event at which the handshake took place between the Queen and Martin McGuinness.

“All of those had an important part in terms of peacebuilding, and of course we’re in a very difficult place in the relationship between the British and Irish governments and yet the two heads of state have always managed to be above that,” he said.

“I would have thought this would have been important and helpful at this time when politics are difficult.”

Mr Sheridan said that his understanding was that the service was about “reflection, it wasn’t about celebrating the centenary or marking the centenary but about reflecting through prayer.

“A service of reflection led by Archbishop Eamon Martin and by Archbishop John McDowell and with the Methodist and Presbyterian churches there I thought would have been a good message to send out with the heads of state there,” he said.