President Michael D Higgins had been considering an invitation to a church service in Armagh marking the centenary of partition and creation of Northern Ireland for six months and had told organisers as far back as March that if the title of the event remained unchanged he would not attend, he said on Friday.
Speaking on his final day of a trip to Rome, Mr Higgins said he told organisers early on he had issues with the title as it was not “a neutral statement politically”. The event, to take place next month, is “a service of reflection and hope to mark the centenary of the partition of Ireland and the formation of Northern Ireland”, according to the invitation.
“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,” the President said.
The service in Co Armagh, to be attended by Queen Elizabeth, is being organised by the leaders of the island's main Christian churches.
Two of the organisers, Catholic Archbishop Eamon Martin and Presbyterian Moderator Dr David Bruce, expressed their determination that the service would go ahead in the spirit in which it had been intended but Dr Bruce said it would be "diminished" by the President's absence.
Both church leaders rejected any suggestion the event was a political one. Archbishop Martin said the organisers had “always insisted” the service would “remain apolitical”.
The President also clarified earlier remarks in which he indicated part of his reason for declining the invitation was that he had been incorrectly referred to as the “President of the Republic of Ireland”. He said the organisers of the event had referred to him as President of Ireland and not of the Republic of Ireland, as he had stated on Thursday. He said the latter description had been assigned to him by the DUP, who have strongly criticised his decision not to attend.
Dr Bruce told The Irish Times he welcomed Mr Higgins’s correction, saying it was “now clear, as it was to us from the start of course, that we had referred to him properly and that proper diplomatic opinion was obtained before this invitation was issued”.
He said the wording used had been chosen “very carefully” and the invitation was the culmination of “several months of work” and communication. “Normal protocols were followed as we put the invitation together,” he said.
Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney said on Friday his department “didn’t give any clear advice” to the President about the invitation. However, he said “there was consultation between the Department of Foreign Affairs and the Áras on this issue”.
Former taoiseach John Bruton withdrew some of his criticism of Mr Higgins’s decision not to attend the service, saying it now appeared the provisions of the Constitution had been fulfilled as the Government had the opportunity to offer advice.
However, he stood by his statement that he believed the President should attend and said he did not see “any problem with the title of the proposed service which refers to simple realities, namely partition and the creation of Northern Ireland”.
Asked if he thought Mr Bruton should withdraw his remarks, Mr Higgins said it was his own business: "He may want to say stronger things tomorrow, good luck to him."
The Government will send a representative to the event if asked, sources indicated. It would be unlikely to be the Taoiseach, as to do so could be seen as an implicit repudiation of the President’s decision, the Government fears.
However, a Cabinet Minister would likely be delegated, with Minister for Social Protection Heather Humphreys mooted.
Taoiseach Micheál Martin dismissed suggestions that Anglo-Irish relations have been damaged by Mr Higgins’s decision not to go to the service and praised his “long-standing commitment” to peace and reconciliation. “He made his decision now and, as he said himself, we should move on from that.”
Sinn Féin MLA Declan Kearney said that if invited his party would decline. The President had been "correct" not to attend the service and had set out his "very valid concerns" around it, he said.