Unionists ‘genuinely disappointed’ at President’s decision not to attend service

Former senator concerned about impact of controversy on North-South, British-Irish relations

President Michael D Higgins: ‘President Higgins has worked hard in the past to reach out and promote reconciliation.’ Photograph: Getty Images

Unionists are “genuinely disappointed” at President Michael D Higgins’s decision not to attend a church service to mark the centenary of partition and the creation of Northern Ireland, former senator Ian Marshall has said.

Mr Marshall, the first unionist to be elected to the Seanad but who was not returned to the House by Taoiseach Micheál Martin, said he was concerned about the impact of the controversy on North-South and British-Irish relations.

“The general feeling I’m picking up from people is that they are genuinely disappointed because it is uncharacteristic, because they know President Higgins has done a lot to reach out, done a lot for reconciliation,” he said.

“There is disappointment that something that people feel shouldn’t have been contentious or divisive – in fact it should have been quite the opposite– has been quite counter-productive.”


Mr Marshall said he met Mr Higgins a number of times and has a “high regard for him”.

“He is an intelligent man, he has always been fairly considered. From a unionist perspective it is disappointing that we have arrived at this situation. President Higgins has worked hard in the past to reach out and promote reconciliation.

“It is unfortunate. We don’t have all the background information. I’m sure there were plenty of communications through the back channels, backwards and forwards, to try and look at the sensitivities. It is unfortunate they didn’t avoid this situation.”

The ex-president of the Ulster Farmers Union, who recently joined the Ulster Unionist Party, said Mr Higgins has “always had a very moderate, considered, respectful approach”.

“He always recognised the importance of working together. That was probably for me the biggest surprise here. I have no doubt the church leaders who organised the event were very aware of all the sensitivities. When I looked at the letter of invitation.. it was a service of reflection and hope.”

Mr Marshall said church leaders had “worked hard to ensure there was nothing offensive or insensitive...but obviously there are issues and concerns there”.

He said that while people in politics and public life were “very sensitive to issues, to events, they have to go out of their comfort zone”.

“Much of the time people are walking on eggshells in terms of dealing with and understanding the past. Most people are encouraged and heartened when we are working together, building North-South and British-Irish relations.”

Mr Marshall said it was “a regret that this has happened”.

“News tends to move pretty fast these days. Let’s hope whatever damage has been inflicted at this point, that we can regain that confidence and trust and reassurance, that everyone is striving for the same thing,” he said.

“Now that it has happened there might be an opportunity to understand the depth of feeling. If that has shone a light on that, then that is important.

“The sensitivities have highlighted the depth of feeling on the nationalist/republican side about the partition of Ireland, and the depth of feeling about the importance, value, benefits and immense pride the unionist/loyalist side have in Northern Ireland.

“I think now we can see that very clearly. The challenge now is how we turn this negative into a positive.”