Taoiseach defends Government’s decision to attend Armagh service

DUP leader says Government has ‘stepped up’ but he still regrets President’s decision not to go

Taoiseach Micheál Martin talks to the media at the Grand Central Hotel during a day-long visit to Belfast. Photograph: Mark Marlow/PA Wire

Taoiseach Micheál Martin talks to the media at the Grand Central Hotel during a day-long visit to Belfast. Photograph: Mark Marlow/PA Wire

 

Taoiseach Micheál Martin has defended the Government’s decision to send representatives to a controversial church service in Armagh marking a century of Irish partition which President Michael D Higgins declined to attend.

Answering questions from reporters in Belfast on Friday, Micheál Martin said the decision to send Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney of Fine Gael and Chief Whip Jack Chambers of Fianna Fáil to represent the Government “doesn’t in any way undermine the position of the President”.

He said he did not believe Mr Higgins “would see it in that way at all”.

Mr Martin said he met the President regularly, including earlier this week regarding the appointment of judges. “You can take it from me there is no issue there in terms of the Government decision or no sense of any difference.”

Last month, Mr Higgins declined an invitation from the five main churches to attend the event at Armagh cathedral on October 21st commemorating the formation of Northern Ireland, as he believed the title was politicised and it would not be appropriate for him to go.

There was communication between Government Buildings and Áras an Uachtaráin about the matter on Thursday, with Mr Higgins notified of the Cabinet sign-off on Government representatives being sent to the event and the reasons behind the decision.

‘Different perspective’

Mr Martin said Mr Higgins, as head of State, “comes at these issues from a different perspective” to the Government.

“In our statement last night [Thursday] we said the President’s decision was properly taken and consistent with views he had articulated earlier in that process leading up to the invitation,” he said.

“We fully support the President in that regard...The Government has then subsequently been invited to the event.

“We took on board the spirit in which that invitation was sent to us and we have decided to be represented at it, and we will just take it from there.”

DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson said he appreciated the “Irish Government have stepped up and will be sending representatives to the service”, but said he still regretted that the President would not attend.

‘Wrong call’

The North’s Deputy First Minister, Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill, said it was the “wrong call” for Government representatives to attend.

“It’s a matter for the Irish Government to make its own decisions,” Ms O’Neill said, “but I think that it is wrong for the Irish Government to attend the event.”

Mr Martin said Sinn Féin had attended “an event of more or less the same title to mark the centenary of the establishment of Northern Ireland and partition...so I don’t get the consistency of the Sinn Féin view point on this, quite frankly”. He was referring to the presence of Sinn Féin junior minister Declan Kearney at an event hosted by the Presbyterian church last month.

“I would just ask at this stage that people should not seek to exploit this situation for political gain, we need to move on in terms of working collectively together on this island in the spirit of reconciliation and joint endeavour into the future,” he said.

In response to queries on the Government’s decision to send a representative to the event, a statement from Áras an Uachtaráin said: “The President has already stated that he will not be commenting further on this matter.

“He wishes to concentrate on future events of commemoration on the lines outlined in his recent statement.” Additional reporting – PA.