Historians support President’s decision not to attend service

His presence ‘would have created more division than it would have healed’

Former Fianna Fáil government adviser on Northern Ireland and junior minister Dr Martin Mansergh said he fully respected the decision of President Michael D Higgins not to attend a religious service marking the creation of Northern Ireland.

His attendance at a service to celebrate the centenary of Northern Ireland and by extension partition would have created more division than it would have healed, Dr Mansergh maintained.

“There is furthermore as yet no reason to believe that such a gesture would be officially matched at political leadership level in any ceremony marking the centenary of this independent Irish State, since 1949 the Republic,” he stated.

“Of course, positive achievements in the lived experience in both jurisdictions over the past 100 years should be empathetically acknowledged, even in the one we do not readily identify with, as we all need to be capable of transcending the boundaries of our own tradition or traditions, but this does not have to involve the validation of the division of this island.”


Saying his decision was the “appropriate one”, Dr Mansergh went on: “the President should be commended for how much he has contributed during the decade of centenaries to the process of greater understanding since 2011.”

Historian Dr Eamon Phoenix said the President had been put in a difficult position when Sinn Féin and the SDLP declined to attend an event marking the centenary of Northern Ireland.

Dr Phoenix, who has been involved in cross-community commemoration, said the church service in Armagh organised by the joint churches had been an attempt to reach out to both sides. He believed the title of the service, "A reflection and hope, to mark the centenary of the partition of Ireland and the formation of Northern Ireland", was meant to appeal to both nationalists and unionists. "Had he [the President] been following the train of events in the North over the last 10 years, he would have realised that we try to find ways of balancing things," Dr Phoenix said.

The 1916 commemorations in Northern Ireland had been designed to appeal to both communities by focusing on the Easter Rising and the Battle of the Somme and had largely succeeded in getting cross-party support.

The President had refused to attend a dinner in Belfast during the Easter Rising commemorations because it did not have cross-community support, he pointed out.

Dr Phoenix said it would always be “touch and go” as to whether he was ever going to attend an event like the one marking a centenary of partition.

He believed there were analogies between it and the abandoned Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) commemoration in January last year, he said. Both commemorations "suddenly became a minefield with all kinds of emotional unresolved issues emerging right across the political spectrum".

‘Disingenuousness ’

Professor Diarmaid Ferriter said the decision by the President should be respected as a person who has meditated deeply on the nature of commemorations during the Decade of Centenaries.

“He is entitled to come to his own decision; he is also mandated by us, as I see it, to exercise discretion and independence in his response to these tricky questions,” he said.

The DUP leader has insisted repeatedly that the event is not a commemoration “which it clearly is”, Prof Ferriter added.

“The hypocrisy and disingenuousness of the DUP on this matter is breathtaking – lecturing the head of state on north-south relations a week after they announced withdrawal from north-south institutions under the GFA, the same GFA they are now invoking to insist the President should attend the Armagh service.

“I think he also has the right to refuse invitations to events that are not seen as shared or inclusive, as is the case with this event.

“The President’s attendance at this event would cause considerable offence to many in both NI and the Republic; attendance at what is being described as a ‘Christian act of worship’ might reasonably be interpreted as an endorsement of a blessing of partition; and asking an Irish president to partake in that creates difficulties when he is seeking to remain above partisan feelings; as he has stated, we can’t ‘ignore the shadows’ created by our shared past. This issue is also being weaponised by some unionists for their own constituency.”

‘Honest debate’

Trinity College Dublin historian Dr Brian Hanley said: "I think the idea of 'shared history' was always flawed, leading to commemorative trade-offs that ignored questions such as imperialism, power and inequality.

“There is absolutely no way that there could be a non-contentious commemoration of the establishment of Northern Ireland given that it was founded on discrimination and exclusion, backed up by state violence.

“Perhaps President Higgins could challenge those commemorating Northern Ireland to discuss people like the so-called ‘rotten prods’, those workers driven from the shipyards and elsewhere for defending their Catholic workmates or standing up to sectarianism?

“Perhaps his non-attendance will lead to an honest debate about the uses of history and why it cannot really be a tool for reconciliation.”

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy is a news reporter with The Irish Times