The Irish Times view: Northern Ireland centenary

Unanswered questions

One week on, the decision by President Michael D Higgins to decline an invitation to a church service marking the centenary of Northern Ireland's creation continues to reverberate.

The polarised reaction suggests that any decision Higgins took would have drawn controversy. By accepting, he would have alienated the many people for whom partition is not a past injustice but a present sore – one that causes real hurt. By declining, he would be seen by many others as delivering a snub to unionists and failing to show the leadership that the difficult work of reconciliation requires.

It was the President's prerogative to go or not to go; that, despite the rather eccentric constitutional interpretations of former taoiseach John Bruton and others, was never in doubt. Whatever Higgins decided, his record of engagement with commemoration bought him moral capital to defend his choice, while his political skills – a man often portrayed primarily as an academic or even a poet is also, perhaps above all else, a very canny politician – equipped him to mitigate any damage that flowed from that decision. In the event, clumsy handling of the fallout arguably did more damage than the decision itself.

The President and his office appear to have had no plan to explain that decision and address the concerns that would inevitably ensue. Indeed, Áras an Uachtaráin allowed two full days to pass after the story broke before Higgins finally said a word about it. In that vacuum the controversy grew. He claimed the invitation referred to him inaccurately as “President of the Republic of Ireland”, but when the churches released the invitation it showed he was addressed correctly as “President of Ireland” (Higgins admitted he got that wrong). The President said the event organisers were made aware of his reservations, which appear to have centred on a reference to partition in the title, in the spring, but church leaders say they only learned of his concerns about the title last week.

Indeed, the organisers appear to have been alive to the dangers of the event taking on a political tinge; earlier in the year, for that very reason, they intervened to ask the Northern Ireland Office to remove the Armagh service from its list of events scheduled to mark the centenary. The Áras – and the Department of Foreign Affairs, if it was involved – should explain what went wrong. Why did the organisers not receive Higgins's message? To whom was it communicated? There is no such thing as non-political commemoration. If Higgins's problem was simply with the title's reference to partition, it is hardly credible that that could not have been addressed through behind-the-scenes diplomacy.

The work of reconciliation is more vital now than at any time since the Belfast Agreement was signed; the handling of the Armagh service does not make that work any easier.

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