Higgins’s decision questions commitment to Belfast Agreement, Bruton says

Foreign affairs and Áras crossed wires over invitation, Government sources suggest

President Michael D Higgins is “anxious we all move forward, with respect, and  will not be commenting further on this matter”. Photograph:  Maxwells/PA Wire

President Michael D Higgins is “anxious we all move forward, with respect, and will not be commenting further on this matter”. Photograph: Maxwells/PA Wire

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Former taoiseach John Bruton has renewed his criticism of President Michael D Higgins’s decision to decline the invitation of church leaders to a commemoration of partition and the establishment of Northern Ireland next month.

Mr Bruton suggested that the decision raised questions about the State’s commitment to elements of the Belfast Agreement, but his remarks drew a sharp response from Áras an Uachtaráin.

Mr Bruton said the President was invited to the event in Co Armagh five months ago “so there was ample time” in consultation with the Government “to iron out any protocol difficulties that might have inhibited” his acceptance of the invitation.

He added that “it would appear the church leaders got no reply from him until last week, a rather slow way for the President of Ireland to respond to the church leaders of Ireland”.

Mr Bruton said the President’s decision raised question marks about the State’s approach to the Belfast Agreement.

He said “the Good Friday [Belfast] Agreement says the participants accept that ‘the present wish of the people of Northern Ireland , freely exercised and legitimate is to maintain the union’ and adds that Northern Ireland’s status as part of the UK ‘reflects and relies upon that wish’”.

‘Politicised’ event

He said this was endorsed in the referendum on the agreement and that “a refusal by this State to attend an event that marks the anniversary of something we have accepted in a referendum opens serious questions”.

Church leaders on Sunday suggested they were keen to address any concerns that Mr Higgins might have had. Speaking about Mr Higgins’s concerns that the title of the event was “politicised” as it mentioned partition, Catholic Primate Archbishop Eamon Martin told RTÉ, “We only learned that this week.”

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.”

But the President’s spokesman insisted Mr Higgins had made his concerns known in March.

‘Narrative remained’

“The President had concluded that if the narrative remained – which was ‘to mark the partition of the island of Ireland and the foundation of Northern Ireland’ – that he would have to wish the participants well, but that he could not attend,” he said in a statement. “The President has been keen to be helpful at all times. He is anxious that we all move forward, with respect, and he will not be commenting further on this matter.”

Senior Government sources have suggested that crossed wires between the Department of Foreign Affairs and the Áras in recent months led to the issuing and rejection of the invitation.

Normally an invitation would not be issued unless it was certain to be accepted, they said. Insiders familiar with the relationship between the Áras and the department say relations between the two can sometimes be difficult.

A poll published by the Irish Mail on Sunday showed overwhelming public backing for the President’s decision, but all shades of unionism in the North continued to express disappointment.

Ulster Unionist Party leader Doug Beattie said he found the refusal to attend “hard to fathom”. But he praised Mr Higgins’s record on reconciliation and said he would not be “running around vilifying” him.

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