Church leaders learned via media that Higgins had declined invite

Disclosure that queen to attend branded an ‘error of judgment’ from security perspective

Queen Elizabeth and Michael D Higgins at Windsor Castle in 2014. Photograph: Justin Tallis/WPA Pool/Getty

Queen Elizabeth and Michael D Higgins at Windsor Castle in 2014. Photograph: Justin Tallis/WPA Pool/Getty

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The Church Leaders’ Group, which is hosting the Northern Ireland centenary service in St Patrick’s Cathedral, Armagh, next month, first became aware President Michael D Higgins would not be attending through the media, sources have indicated.

There is also disquiet in the group, for security reasons, that the expected attendance at the event of Queen Elizabeth was disclosed last week. This was described by one source as “a serious error of judgment”.

Some speculate it could mean the queen may now not attend. Details of her visits to Northern Ireland are not revealed in advance.

Last Wednesday it was reported that President Higgins had declined an invitation to attend the church service with the queen. Mr Higgins’s spokesman also said that “the President, through his office, has already conveyed his good wishes to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II”.

In addition, in a statement on Monday, the joint secretaries to the Church Leaders’ Group confirmed that the first they heard of the decision to decline the invitation was through the media.

Rev Trevor Gribben, clerk of the general assembly and general secretary of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, and Rev Dr Heather Morris, secretary of the Methodist Conference, said an invitation to the service was sent to President Higgins on May 20th.

“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,” they said.

‘Moment to reflect’

It is understood that both Rev Gribben and Rev Morris had been dealing on behalf of the Church Leaders’ Group with Áras an Uachtaráin and the Department of Foreign Affairs concerning the invitation.

Last March the Northern Ireland Office included the Armagh service among events scheduled to mark the centenary of Northern Ireland this year. This provoked an intervention by the Church Leaders’ Group, which asked that the service be deleted from that schedule as it was not a political event.

In a statement on March 12th, the group said it was “deeply mindful that the events of 100 years ago evoke a range of responses from communities across these islands. For this reason, this point of reflection will provide an opportunity to affirm our common commitment to peace, healing and reconciliation.”

They continued that: “The service will therefore be at the initiative of the church leaders, and the church leaders will be wholly responsible for its planning, organisation and design.”

On March 17th the group issued a lengthy joint St Patrick’s Day statement on the service and its context.

Among those most supportive of the service has been the Catholic Primate Eamon Martin. Last December the archbishop criticised politicians for refusing to engage with events marking the creation of Northern Ireland.

“I would like to see the 2021 centenary as an opportunity for greater mutual understanding, for opportunities to build further reconciliation and peace,” he said in an interview with Irish Catholic.

“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,” he said.

‘Great sadness’

He warned that a united Ireland will never be achieved unless nationalists are willing to listen to those who are fearful of the prospect of reunification. “Clearly as a nationalist myself, as growing up in a nationalist community, I would have a yearning that that sense of belonging is something that could be shared by all of the people in the island of Ireland,” he said.

The division of the island in 1921 had caused “a great amount of sadness: a sense of separation, a sense of loss with the partition of the island,” within the broader Catholic/nationalist community, he said.

At the same time “for unionists and indeed loyalist communities in Northern Ireland, it represents for them a significant moment in the establishment of the Northern Ireland state”, he said.

“If there is ever to be greater mutual understanding and living together on the island of Ireland, then we need to be able to face difficult moments and difficult episodes from our history; we need to be able to face it openly,” he said.