President Higgins suggests Bruton should withdraw criticism

Former taoiseach says he stands over initial interpretation of the Constitution

President Higgins criticised both Mr Bruton’s interpretation of the constitution and also the tone of his reference to credit unions. File photograph: Nick Bradshaw/The Irish Times

President Higgins criticised both Mr Bruton’s interpretation of the constitution and also the tone of his reference to credit unions. File photograph: Nick Bradshaw/The Irish Times

 

President Michael D Higgins has said the criticism by former taoiseach John Bruton of his decision not to attend a commemorative event in Northern Ireland was “wrong” and that he might consider withdrawing the remarks.

Speaking in Rome, the President said Mr Bruton’s interpretation of the Constitution was “unusual” and he found “extraordinary” the criticism that came from a former prime minister, and member of the Council of State.

Earlier on Friday Mr Bruton said that if Mr Higgins had fulfilled his obligations under the Constitution, which is to take the advice of the Irish Government on this matter, they would have advised him that he ought to go.

Mr Higgins, who was briefing journalists about his audience with Pope Francis in the Vatican, strongly criticised the remarks of Mr Bruton and suggested they might be withdrawn.

“The criticism of former taoiseach John Bruton is wrong and his interpretation of the Constitution may be fine to some legal scholars who may support such an unusual interpretation of Articles 13.8 and 13.9 (of the Constitution) which I think is unfortunate.

“It is up to him as to whether he should withdraw the remarks he has made about the President practically suggesting the President has behaved improperly,” he said.

The controversy relates to his decision to decline an invitation to a service in Armagh in October to mark the centenary of the partition of Ireland which will be attended by the Queen. The President decided not to attend because he viewed the title and its reference to partition as political.

With regard to Mr Bruton’s remarks that the event was not the opening of a credit union in Kerry, Mr Higgins replied: “I think he might (also) withdraw his remarks about the significance of a credit union meeting in Kerry because I can’t think of any more important organisation than the credit union movement.

“I think he is wrong about 13.8 and 13.9 and he is also wrong about the relationship between the Government and the President.”

He said there were people who had suggested he had acted outside his remit within the Constitution but added: “I find it very extraordinary coming from a former prime minister, and then a member of the Council of State, who has always been treated with courtesy by me. I am sure that Mr Bruton will want to withdraw his remarks.”

The President says that there have been discussions on the difficulties surrounding the title since March.

“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.”

He said the “title was not a neutral statement politically”.

He continued: “Let us be clear that doing commemorations is difficult.”

He instanced the Treaty negotiations and the contested nature of the form of partition that suggested that some parties were not free to outline their positions and also referred to issues of coercion.

He also suggested that the 1921 date might be problematic, given that the Boundary Commission did not report until 1925.

“The other one is, you have to look at all the context of how free people were to outline their concerns.

“We have to deal with, whether you like it or not, the issue of coercion,” he said, also referring the 1921.

Stood by interpretation

In a subsequent statement, John Bruton said that he stood by his initial interpretation of the constitution, but moderated his stance as it had emerged after the interview that President Higgins had been in dialogue with the Government.

“I believe the decision, to accept or decline this invitation, which President Higgins received as Head of State, is definitely in exercise of his ” function” as Head of State,” he said. “But when I referred, this morning , to his response to the invitation from Church leaders, the information in the public domain then was that the President had acted on his own in this matter.”

He continued: “This was before a subsequent statement by the Minister for Foreign Affairs that the government did have an opportunity to offer advice but did not do so. In light of this, the provisions of the constitution now do appear to have been fulfilled. I am happy that that is the case and that the matter is now clarified. That said, I still believe to President should go to Armagh next month.

He went on to say that the event represented a valuable opportunity to recognise the “present constitutional realities, while pointing the way to a more hopeful future.”

“It is a valuable opportunity to recognise the present constitutional realities, while pointing the way to a more hopeful future. Two heads of state standing together in the ecclesiastical capital of Ireland would be a powerful symbol of a new way forward for this island. It would recognise the diverse allegiances that exist on this island.”

He also said he could not see the problem with the title of the proposed service “which refers to simple realities, namely partition and the creation of Northern Ireland.”

“I understand the invitation was issued to “the President of Ireland”. I commend the church leaders on organising this service, with its emphasis on “an honest reflection” on the past and an acknowledgement of “past failures and hurts”. This is the sort of honest and humble thinking that should guide our own marking of important centenaries in this jurisdiction. The church leaders have shown brave leadership.”