The Church Leaders Group, which is hosting the controversial service in St Patrick's Cathedral Armagh next month, have said President Michael D Higgins's refusal this week of their invitation to attend was "unexpected".
It was also pointed out that in the invitation sent to him on May 20th last he was addressed as “The President of Ireland”.
Speaking to The Irish Times in Rome on Thursday, Mr Higgins said:"I was also referred to as the President of the Republic of Ireland. I am the President of Ireland."
It had been widely taken at the time that this reference had been by the church leaders in their invitation but on Friday afternoon, President Higgins acknowledged that this had not been the case.
He said the description had been assigned to him by the leadership of the DUP. “In fairness, I just want to be scrupulous about this,” he said
The invitation itself was headed "The Church Leaders Group (Ireland)" and extended "an invitation to you as President of Ireland to attend a Service of Reflection and Hope, to mark the Centenary of the partition of Ireland and the formation of Northern Ireland. The proposed date is Thursday 21st October at an appropriate time in the late afternoon. The service will take place in St Patrick's (Church of Ireland) Cathedral in Armagh."
It is understood the Church Leaders Group had been planning the event for over seven months and had agreed “in good faith” to include a reference to “the partition of Ireland”, deliberately, to heighten the extent of division and difficulties involved, as well as “to reflect the terrible events of 1921.”
Until this week sources said the Church Leaders Group felt the signals from Áras an Uachtaráin to their invitation to next month’s Armagh service had been positive.
Opportunity for reflection
The invitation sent to Mr Higgins said the service next month would be "of Christian worship hosted, organised and led by the leaders of the Church of Ireland, Roman Catholic, Presbyterian and Methodist Churches and the Irish Council of Churches. All of these churches extend across both jurisdictions on the island of Ireland."
The service would “provide the opportunity for honest reflection on the past one hundred years, with the acknowledgement of failures and hurts, but also with a clear affirmation of our shared commitment to building a future marked by peace, reconciliation and a commitment to the common good. The overriding theme will be that of ‘Hope’,” it said.
It continued that: "A similar invitation is being extended to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth. The congregation will include representatives from; the political leadership of Northern Ireland, the United Kingdom and Ireland, a cross section of the local population including some of our young people, and family members of those impacted during the difficult years of 'the Troubles'."
It concluded “we look forward to your reply”.
The invitation was signed on behalf of the Church Leaders Group by joint secretaries Rev Dr Trevor Gribben, clerk of the Presbyterian Church, and Rev Dr Heather Morris, secretary of the Methodist Church Conference.
The Church Leaders Group includes Catholic Primate Archbishop Eamon Martin, Church of Ireland Primate Archbishop John McDowell, Presbyterian Moderator Rev Dr David Bruce, (then) Methodist President Rev Dr Tom McKnight, and President of the Irish Council of Churches Rev Dr Ivan Patterson.
In a joint St Patrick’s Day statement last March they said: “Some may struggle with the concept of a shared history when it comes to the centenary of the partition of Ireland, the establishment of Northern Ireland and the resulting reconfiguration of British–Irish relationships. What is undeniable, however, is the reality that we have to live in a shared space on these islands, and to make them a place of belonging and welcome for all.”
In issuing that statement last March only the Presbyterian Church headed it, in bold lettering, that the Church Leaders Group was reflecting “on this year’s centenaries of the establishment of Northern Ireland and the partition of Ireland in 1921.”
In its statement on the service last Wednesday the Catholic Church led for the first time with the sentence, in bold lettering also, that "Christian commitment to peace, healing and reconciliation underpins Service of Reflection and Hope to mark the partition of Ireland and the formation of Northern Ireland."
All main churches in Ireland are constructed on an all-island basis. However the great majority of Catholics on the island live in the Republic, while approximately a third of Church of Ireland members live in the Republic. The great majority of Presbyterians, and Methodists, on the island live in Northern Ireland.
Of the approximately 190,000 Presbyterians on the island, about 2,000 live in the Republic.
Speaking to The Irish Times, the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, the Rt Rev Dr David Bruce, welcomed the clarification from Michael D Higgins that he had been referred to in the invitation by his correct title.
He said he was “pleased to read today that the President has corrected his initial impression given that we, in our invitation, referred to him as the President of the Republic of Ireland.
“It’s now clear, as it was to us from the start of course, that we had referred to him properly and that proper diplomatic opinion was obtained before this invitation was issued.”
Dr Bruce said he was “surprised” the President was not attending the event, which he said he thought “maybe represented a set of misunderstandings that have arisen” but said it now “seems unlikely” he would reverse his decision.
“I would have to express some disappointment at that because I think the symbolic presence of a head of state on this island says a lot to the whole of the country, to all the citizens of Ireland, north and south, and to run this service without him there, it’s diminished in some respects.”
He said that however the service would go ahead and the organisers would “do exactly what we were going to do before which is to focus on hope for the future” and he paid tribute to Mr Higgins as someone he “hugely admired” whose commitment to peace had set a “tremendous example” to follow.
“I fully expect that in the fullness of time any tensions that have arisen over the last number of days will resolve and we will find ourselves back working with and alongside a highly respected head of state.”
In regard to the wording of the invitation, Dr Bruce said the Church Leaders Group had chosen their words “very carefully” and spent “significant time defining and describing how we would offer this event because the last thing we want to do is create further polarisation.”
The invitation was issued on May 20th and was the “culmination of several months of work”, Dr Bruce said. Asked about the nature of the communication that had taken place, he said “normal protocols were followed as we put the invitation together.”
So far the only invitations to have been issued have been those sent to the President and to Queen Elizabeth, but Dr Bruce said other invitations would be formally issued in the “next couple of days.”
The head of the Catholic church in Ireland has said it would have been “very special” had the Mr Higgins been able to attend the service.
Archbishop Eamon Martin said the organisers of the event, the leaders of the main Christian churches in Ireland, had “always insisted” the service would “remain apolitical and we hope to try and keep it that way.
“We can’t rely on others to do that but we will be keeping this as a moment of prayer and reflection,” he said.
He said his understanding was that the Queen would be present at the event. A representative from the UK government will also be in attendance.
Asked if he hoped Mr Higgins would reconsider his decision not to attend, Archbishop Martin said that “at this stage I think the President’s clear that he has made up his mind” but he intended to “invite the people of Ireland, north and south” to join in prayer on that day.
He said church leaders had organised the event “knowing that it was a very contentious and tense thing to get involved in” but they had been anxious to “try to create a space where we all together this year could reflect this year on what happened in 1921.”
As church leaders, he said, “we have to try to invite people to enter into that space in a manner of reflection, contemplation and of hope, and I think the President himself in his own speeches about the decade of centenaries has encouraged that we would enter into this space.
“It’s a delicate, difficult and sensitive space, and we’re trying to lead as church leaders,” he said.
Archbishop Martin was speaking as he arrived at an event in Belfast on Friday organised by the Presbyterian Church to mark centenary of partition and the foundation of Northern Ireland.
Also in attendance was the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Simon Coveney, and representing the UK government the newly-appointed minister of state at the Northern Ireland Office, Conor Burns MP.
Mr Burns said it was a “matter for the President of the Irish Republic to decide whether he wants to come or not” and it would “not preclude us from carrying on marking a very significant historic event in an inclusive way for all communities here in Northern Ireland.”
Politicians from Northern Ireland were also present, including the First Minister Paul Givan and his party leader Jeffrey Donaldson, the Sinn Féin junior minister Declan Kearney, who was attending on behalf of Michelle O’Neill, and the Minister for Justice, Naomi Long of the Alliance Party, and the SDLP’s Claire Hanna and Matthew O’Toole.
Mr Kearney said the President had been “correct” not to attend the service and had set out his “very valid concerns” around it.
He said Sinn Féin had not received an invitation to the service but if the party did so it would also decline.
Asked about the reaction from the DUP he said it was “regrettable” and was “playing directly into the DUP narrative of trying to turn everything that we’re now dealing with into a proxy for how they deal with the protocol.”
Responding to the explanation given by Mr Higgins for declining the invitation, Mr Donaldson said he was “very disappointed” and it was “highly regrettable” he felt he could not attend.
“If we’re going to build a shared future in Northern Ireland then we have to be able to deal with our shared history,” he said.
“If we’re going to have a standoff over things that happened 100 years ago what hope is there of building the real reconciliation we need and approaching our shared future with hope?”
The SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said on Friday that politicians in the North should “pause and reflect on the weight of their words” amid a “manufactured row”.
He said “cynical criticism” of Mr Higgins would not advance reconciliation, and he believed the aim of the remarks was “not to advance reconciliation but to take advantage of grievance for political purposes.”
He said Mr Higgins’ time in office had “undoubtedly contributed to the healing process across these islands” and said he “would respectfully ask that those for whom this is disappointing reflect on the honest remarks made by President Higgins last night and understand the views of those for whom partition is not a cause for celebration or commemoration.”