Michael D Higgins will not attend Armagh church service with queen

President turns down invitation to event marking NI centenary and island’s partition

President  Michael D Higgins: Leaders of the main Christian churches had anticipated he would take part in an upcoming service in Armagh  as head of the State.  Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA

President Michael D Higgins: Leaders of the main Christian churches had anticipated he would take part in an upcoming service in Armagh as head of the State. Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA

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President Michael D Higgins has declined an invitation to attend a church service with Queen Elizabeth marking Northern Ireland’s centenary and the partition of the island.

The service in the coming weeks in Armagh is being organised by the leaders of the main Christian churches, who had anticipated that Mr Higgins would take part as head of the State.

“The President is not in a position to attend the ceremony you mention, and this has been communicated to the organisers,” Mr Higgins’s spokesman said in reply to a question from The Irish Times.

President Michael D. Higgins, his wife Sabina Coyne, Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, ahead of a state banquet in Windsor. Photograph: Dan Kitwood/ Reuters
President Michael D Higgins, his wife Sabina Coyne, Queen Elizabeth II and (the since departed) Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, ahead of a state banquet in Windsor in April 2014. Photograph: Dan Kitwood/Reuters

With preparations at a sensitive point, his decision has disappointed organisers. They hoped that both political traditions in Ireland would be represented at a very high level.

‘Good wishes’ conveyed

Mr Higgins’s spokesman did not say why he would not attend. “The President, through his office, has already conveyed his good wishes to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II,” the spokesman said.

“The President has welcomed, and continues to welcome any opportunities to meet with Her Majesty and members of her family.”

Catholic primate Archbishop Eamon Martin will attend, as will Church of Ireland primate Archbishop John McDowell and other church leaders.

Archbishop Martin’s spokesman had no comment on Mr Higgins: “The important thing is that this service is going ahead. It’s an initiative of the main Christian denominations on this island, and is underpinned by prayer, peace and reconciliation.”

‘Reconciliation and peace’

In a December interview with the Irish Catholic newspaper, Archbishop Martin criticised politicians for refusing to engage with events marking the creation of the northern state.

“I would like to see the 2021 centenary as an opportunity for greater mutual understanding, for opportunities to build further reconciliation and peace,” the archbishop said then.

“I am somewhat disappointed that many of our nationalist and republican political leaders have dismissed the centenary of 2021 altogether, because for me I think it’s really important to seize it as a moment to reflect on where we’ve come from.”

The Church of Ireland declined to comment. The Government also declined to comment. Asked if a Government representative would attend, a source said any invitation would be considered.