Invitation wording could have been changed to allay Higgins’s concern, church leaders say

Invitations to ‘controversial’ NI centenary event in Armagh to be sent today

Irish President Michael D Higgins. Photograph: Maxwells/PA Wire

Irish President Michael D Higgins. Photograph: Maxwells/PA Wire

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Invitations to attend a controversial religious service in Armagh to mark the centenary of the creation of Northern Ireland and the partition of the island will be sent to the Irish and British Governments on Friday.

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.

On Thursday night, the organisers said they had first become aware that President Michael D Higgins would not attend on September 14th following contact by media.

“Had we been aware of the President’s concerns, we would have considered an alternative wording,” Presbyterian moderator Rev David Bruce said.

The current wording to include a reference to both partition and the creation of Northern Ireland “acknowledged the political fact of partition but recognised people’s different perceptions of that”, he said.

The church leaders had decided in late 2020 “after prayerful reflection and dialogue” to co-operate on “a collective programme of engagement with the 1921 centenaries.

They had been “wholly responsible” for the planning, organisation and design of the Armagh service, and they insisted, again, that it did not form part of other events to commemorate the creation of Northern Ireland.

“We were conscious that these centenaries would highlight painful moments from our past which continue to impact relationships in our present. We felt a responsibility as Christian leaders to explore the opportunity to deepen the work of reconciliation in a context of respectful dialogue. We cannot undo the past, but we can learn from it, and we all have a responsibility to contribute to the healing of relationships from our different perspectives,” they wrote in a statement.

All shades

Invitations will be sent to the Irish and UK Governments today. Despite speculation about security concerns, Queen Elizabeth is expected to attend. “We hope those in attendance will represent all shades of culture and politics on the island, and across the water,” said Dr Bruce.

The church leaders include Catholic Primate Eamon Martin; Church of Ireland Primate John McDowell; Dr Bruce; Methodist president Dr Sahr Yambasu; and the president of the Irish Council of Churches, Rev Dr Ivan Patterson.

In a lengthy joint statement, they said they were “saddened by the polarised public commentary” provoked by the controversy surrounding President Higgins’s decision not to attend.

“The tone of the public debate has shone a light on the societal wounds we wish to reflect on in this service,” they said, adding that they wished “primarily to gather in prayer for healing of relationships” and to work together for peace.

They added: “We of course understand that not everyone will feel able to participate with us in this service, but for those who do, particularly in our local churches across this island, we wish to clarify in this statement the context and original vision for the service, and invite people to join with us in prayer and reflection.”

Dr Bruce said he and the other church leaders differed “culturally and theologically”, but by coming together to organise the service they had sought “ a compromise on which to build a new consensus”.

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