Government will make ‘collective’ decision on NI event invite, says Taoiseach

Donaldson claims President has ‘little or no interest’ in shared future with unionism

President Michael D  Higgins said last week that in March he had made known his concerns about the title of the event. Photograph: Maxwells/PA Wire

President Michael D Higgins said last week that in March he had made known his concerns about the title of the event. Photograph: Maxwells/PA Wire

 

Taoiseach Micheál Martin has said the Government will make a “collective decision” on how to respond to an invitation to attend a controversial religious ceremony marking the centenary of Northern Ireland.

The “service of reflection and hope to mark the centenary of the partition of Ireland and the formation of Northern Ireland” takes place at St Patrick’s Church of Ireland Cathedral, Armagh, on October 21st.

President Michael D Higgins declined the invitation to the interdenominational service, which is to be attended by Queen Elizabeth.

Mr Higgins said a reference to the partition of Ireland in the title of the event politicised it in way that made it inappropriate for him to attend.

The Irish Times reported on Friday that invitations to attend the interdenominational ceremony were to be sent to the Irish and British governments on Friday.

Asked about the invitation on the last day of his visit to New York for United Nations meetings Mr Martin said there is an indication that the Government will be receiving the invitation to the event. Asked if he would attend and whether there was any reason why he would not, Mr Martin said the Government would consider the invitation and make a “collective decision”.

Mr Martin also responded to the letter written by the Catholic and Protestant church leaders who organised the event where they express sadness at the “the polarised political commentary” that has arisen

The BBC reported that their letter did not mention Mr Higgins and it also said they understand some will not feel able to attend.

Mr Martin said commemoration is a “challenging issues in itself and it has to be done sensitively”.

He said: “It has to be done without any sort of coercion, intended or otherwise.”

Mr Martin said he respects the organisers “in terms of what they are trying to do and their bone fides”.

He also said he fully respects the President’s decision not to attend. “I understand where he was coming from,” said Mr Martin.

“I’ve said this consistently and he has been very committed to commemoration,” Mr Martin added.

He also said: “We don’t want commemorations in themselves or the events in themselves to be divisive whether intended or not.”

Mr Martin said he thought the earlier phase of commemorations from 2016 onwards have been handled well as a country.

“Not everyone would have come to our events and that’s understandable too.

“But I think we just have to work together in a spirit of engagement here, to do this in a way that is sensitive to the issues and also to the knock-on impacts in terms of the current contemporary situation.”

‘Little or no interest’

Democratic Unionist Party leader Jeffrey Donaldson on Friday accused Mr Higgins of having no respect for Northern Ireland and “little or no interest” in a shared future with unionism.

His comments follow a statement by the Moderator of the Presbyterian Church, who said the title for a controversial ecumenical service had been discussed in advance but no concerns were raised with the organisers by President Higgins.

Rev Dr David Bruce said the title for the service was agreed by the Church Leaders Group “having consulted, very carefully with both officials within the Northern Ireland Office and in Dublin through the Department of Foreign Affairs and we had no feedback suggesting that this was going to be problematic.”

The Irish Times understands that Mr Higgins had contact with the Department of Foreign Affairs on this matter.

President Higgins said last week that he had made known his concerns about the title of the event in March, arguing it was not “a neutral statement politically” and he would not be able to attend if it was not changed.

On the President’s concerns about the title, Rev Bruce said: “We’re not saying President Michael D Higgins did not raise these issues, but we are saying he didn’t raise them with us.”

Speaking on Radio Ulster on Friday morning, Rev Bruce said: “We did explore the details of the service, not only its title but its content and its purpose with officials and did so from an early stage and the signals that we received back, both from London and from Dublin, were positive and warm and on that basis we proceeded.”

Mr Donaldson, an MP for Lagan Valley, said the statement by church leaders made clear “that the Presidential office and titles were respected by the organisers and there was no known diplomatic attempt to alter anything about the cross-community event”.

“Just a flat refusal to attend,” he said. “The rejection of this event by the Irish head of State signals to unionists that the Presidential office does not respect Northern Ireland as an entity and has little or no interest in a shared future with unionism.

“Such a stance demonstrates how far the office under Michael D Higgins has drifted from the shared future principles it once espoused.”

He claimed disrespect for the existence of Northern Ireland “indicates that Michael D Higgins’ office is really a united Ireland champion rather than a leader of reconciliation”.

“This saga has been a sad reflection on many years of outreach by unionists like me and others,” he said.

Partition

In the interview on Radio Ulster, Rev Bruce acknowledged that partition is a divisive issue. “But it is a political fact and what we are seeking to do here is reflect upon the effects of it. Some, of course, saw it as tragic, as an undermining of Irishness and an aspiration for a 32 county sovereign Republic.

“Others saw it as a triumph of statecraft, something that was necessary and gave respect to those who took a different view in the six counties in Northern Ireland which became Northern Ireland,” he said.

“We acknowledged and accept the political realities of that but are seeking to reflect carefully and wisely and well on 100 years .”

The service next month is organised and run and led by the Church Leaders, he said. “There will be no trappings of state, no military parades or music or flags. It is a church service to which the Church Leaders are inviting a variety of people to come and reflect. It is, in a sense, a private non-state service of worship.”

He confirmed that further invitations to the service were sent out on Friday to representatives of Governments in Ireland and Britain.

“We of course acknowledge and recognise that not everyone will be able to attend the service but the invitations are offered in good faith on behalf of all of us as Church Leaders representing all of the traditions, all of the Christian traditions on this island.”

He said he was “saddened” by the President’s decision not to attend.

“I’ve a huge respect for the President, his commitment to reconciliation, his engagement with others who differ from him in the past has been impressive and I wish him well. I respect and, speaking on behalf of all of us as church leaders, as a group we respect his decision as head of state.”

On the reaction by politicians to the President’s decision he said: “Politics in Ireland is riven and divided by its very nature and there’s a phrase we use in our statement that we need to maximise the ways in which we can differ well. Differing well enables progress to happen on this island,” he said, and pointed to the Belfast Agreement as a model.