Problems with centenary service arose in March, but were not addressed

Warnings were either missed or ignored or there was a breakdown in communications

President Michael D Higgins: The leaders of the four main Christian churches on this island were completely unaware there was any problem over the President’s attendance until The Irish Times began reporting on the issue on September 14th.  Photograph: Maxwells

President Michael D Higgins: The leaders of the four main Christian churches on this island were completely unaware there was any problem over the President’s attendance until The Irish Times began reporting on the issue on September 14th. Photograph: Maxwells

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No matter how often you join the dots of what is publicly known of the church service “to mark the centenary of the partition of Ireland and the establishment of Northern Ireland”, it’s impossible to get a full picture of how, or when, it all descended into crisis.

What is known is that the first serious warnings about the interdenominational church service in Armagh becoming a “political statement” occurred in early March this year.

Those warnings were either not picked up or ignored, or there was a fundamental and seismic breakdown in communications. The consequential problem that emerged was never addressed.

Not was it addressed when invitations were issued in May to President Michael D Higgins and to Queen Elizabeth, or, again, when the President put another event in his diary in early September.

By then, his decision was a fait accompli, but key people elsewhere did not know.

Astonishingly, it has emerged in the past week that the leaders of the four main Christian churches on this island were completely unaware there was any problem over the President’s attendance until The Irish Times began reporting on the issue on September 14.

The key dates are the days leading up to St Patrick’s Day, March 17th. It created a faultline that eventually erupted a full six months later.

The Church Leaders’ Group had decided before the New Year it would mark the 1921 centenary in some way, but outside the sphere of politics. During preliminary discussions, it had contacted both the President’s office and that of the queen.

On March 12th, the Northern Ireland Office released a calendar for all the centenary events it had organised for the year. The church service was included in the calendar.

Spotted

For it to become part of the official British government programme was a problem. The inclusion was spotted by the President.

“He had become aware of a statement from the Northern Ireland Office on March 12th which included the suggested event in a wider context that was political,” said the President’s spokesman this week.

“The President appreciated that this would be of concern to the organisers, and his office was in touch.”

The church leaders moved quickly. The leader of the Catholic Church in Ireland, Archbishop Eamon Martin, said last Sunday that as soon as they became aware of it, they responded.

“There was a bump in the road before St Patrick’s Day when our event got in a list of events that were not of a similar nature,” he told RTÉ.

“I know there were officials in Dublin who were very upset.

“Even before they communicated that to us we put out a statement that our event was completely different and was not of that nature. [We] got it back on track,” he said.

But was it back on track or had it been already derailed?

For the President had another issue. It was the title. It was referenced in the joint statement issued by the church leaders on St Patrick’s Day as they referred to “the centenary of the partition of Ireland, the establishment of Northern Ireland”.

In interviews during his trip to Rome last week, the President said the title had “troubled” him since March and that view had been made clear at meetings involving officials in early March.

“In the week before St Patrick’s Day I addressed these words and said if these words and this title suggested remain it may be that I will have to wish you well,” he said.

The inclusion of the reference to partition was problematic. That gave rise to an irony. The reference to “partition” came from the Catholic Church’s side, not any other church.

It was included to recognise the nationalist perspective on what had occurred 100 years ago, in other words the sense of a splitting of a country rather than the establishment of one.

Coercion

But “partition” is a problematic word south of the Border. The President raised the issue of coercion during the 1921 Treaty negotiations that led to the de facto divide. He also questioned if 1925, and not 1921, might be a more appropriate year. In that view, he had an ally in Prof Diarmuid Ferriter, who described the title as naive.

The paradox underlying it all is obvious. The service was specifically organised to be completely non-political. The President viewed the title as making it politicised and wanted it changed if he was to attend.

Neither side wanted it to be political. But, politically, it has now heated, with consequences that could be lasting. Sadly, the reaction has also brought up the polarisation the organisers had tried so hard to avoid.

This was the nub of the crisis. President Higgins had raised his objection yet the church leaders were blissfully unaware of it. Dr Martin said the first he learned of it was from The Irish Times reporting it in mid-September. Speaking on BBC’s Good Morning Ulster on Friday morning, the Presbyterian moderator Dr David Bruce was more explicit. Asked to confirm if the President’s view had not actually been conveyed to the Church Leaders’ Group in March, or later, he replied: “That’s correct. We are not saying that the President did not raise the issues but we are saying he did not raise them with us.”

It begs many questions. To whom was the President’s view communicated? Who was involved? Why did the message not reach the organisers? What involvement, if any, did the Department of Foreign Affairs have?

The Church Leaders’ Group continued to organise as if the paths had not diverged. On Friday, Dr Bruce also disclosed that the Department of Foreign Affairs raised no flags whatsoever about the title at any time.

“The title for the service was agreed by us as a church leaders’ group, having consulted very carefully with officials from the Northern Ireland Office and in Dublin through the Department of Foreign Affairs. We had no feedback suggesting this was going to be problematic.”

Reservations

This suggests that the department was unaware that the President had a problem with the title, or, if it was aware, did not pass on his reservations to the organisers. The department said this week it will “not be offering comment on the [matter] at this time.”

It’s known from public comments there was some contact between the President’s office and Buckingham Palace. The organisers also had “a back-and-forth” with the Department of Foreign Affairs. Rev Trevor Gribben, general secretary of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, and Rev Dr Heather Morris, secretary of the Methodist Conference, said the invitation was sent on May 20th.

When John Bruton intervened last week to suggest Mr Higgins had not fulfilled his duties under the Constitution to take advice from the Government, Mr Coveney intervened to say there had been contact.

His comments raised more questions than answers. “We gave a perspective on that,” said Mr Coveney. “It wasn’t formal advice. I’ve said that before, that the President made up his own mind on this.”

Asked if the Department told him he should not attend, the Minister replied: “No.”

That argument is academic. The days when the president of Ireland acquiesced to the government of the day on all matters is long gone. Until 1990, the president’s role was largely ceremonial and conformist, almost as circumscribed as that of the trainee priest in Séamus Heaney’s poem, Station Island: “Doomed to the decent thing. Visiting neighbours. Drinking tea and praising home-made bread.”

It changed during Mary Robinson’s tenure when she overcame Charles Haughey’s objections and delivered the Dimbleby Lecture in London. Nowadays, as noted last week by Prof Deirdre Heenan of the University of Ulster, a former member of the Council of State, President Higgins is very independent of mind in defining his role and obligations.

Die was cast

By now, the die was cast. In early September the Statistical and Social Inquiry Society of Ireland was invited to the Áras for an event on the economics of sustainability on October 21st, the same day as the religious service.

President Higgins’s decision was final at that stage. Nobody in Foreign Affairs or the Department of the Taoiseach has been prepared to say when they discovered the invitation had been turned down. Two Ministers, in non-related portfolios, say it was never discussed at Cabinet level; the first they learned of it was the report by Arthur Beesley in The Irish Times on September 15th.

The President’s spokesman told The Irish Times Mr Higgins had replied to, and declined, the invitation. While nobody has officially confirmed it, given the surprise of the church leaders at the turn of events, it can be surmised the letter from the Áras was dispatched around the time The Irish Times made enquiries.

In a statement on Monday, the joint secretariat for the Church Leaders’ Group phrased it felicitously: “Last week President Higgins himself indicated to the media that he had replied to and declined the invitation. We can confirm that this is correct.”

Invitations were sent out to others, including the Irish Government, on Friday. It will present a headache for Taoiseach Micheál Martin. Many of his own TDs and party members agree fully with President Higgins’s stance. If he himself were to go, it could send out a certain message about his own commitment to a core party value, and set his view at odds with that of the President. If not him, whom? It would need to be somebody senior enough to reflect the status of the event. That makes it more likely the Minister will be from the Fine Gael side.

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