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Jennifer O’Connell: Michael D Higgins would do well to follow his own advice

President’s refusal of invitation to commemorative service with queen is no act of healing

During the fateful RTÉ Frontline presidential debate near the end of the 2011 election campaign, one candidate – who had more or less been written off in the polls – spoke about what he would like his legacy to be. A decade on, I doubt many people remember Michael D Higgins's answer that night; his words about bringing the generations together or his desire to "restore and help and heal" the country.

It was the kind of thing all the hopefuls were saying, although certainly less lyrically. Few people were paying much attention to Mr Higgins that night, at least not after Pat Kenny read out a tweet from a bogus Sinn Féin account that would derail then favourite Seán Gallagher's campaign.

The man who went on to be President has succeeded admirably in part of the vision he outlined. He has been wildly popular across the generations and the political spectrum – from the 80-something man who told me with shining eyes how he missed the President's presence at the ploughing championships this week to the proud millennial owners of the Michael Tea Higgins tea cosies you can buy on Etsy.

But this week he scored a surprising own goal against the other pillar of his self-declared mission, the part about healing the country.


Higgins's blunt refusal of an invitation to an ecumenical service of reflection and hope marking a centenary of partition and the formation of Northern Ireland is no act of healing. It took him two days to offer an explanation beyond the intentionally vague statement from his office that he was "not in a position" to attend. When reporters caught up with him in Rome, he said he had a problem with the title of the event, which was "politicised" and the fact that "an invitation to a religious service had in fact become a political statement".

Higgins understands how much words matter, so he might have paid better attention to another of the ones on the invite. A commemoration is a moment to remember and reflect. It is not the same thing as a celebration.

There are certain things the office of the President of Ireland is meant to be above. Stoking up an already tense situation, aggravating the unionist population of the island and “snubbing the queen” – not his intention, but always how some were going to choose to see it – are at least three of them. He’s right that an invitation to a religious service has now become a political statement, but he’s the one who made it so. Coming from someone who has frequently spoken about the need to unshackle ourselves from the past, it was a populist, ill-considered and uncharacteristically divisive move. You only had to look on social media at the ugly outbreaks of sectarian glee on one side and incandescent fury on the other to understand just how divisive.

Michael D Higgins’s popularity – borne of his ability to exude both intellectual gravitas and fun; his likability and ease; his skill at articulating a mood or feeling – means he sometimes gets away with pushing the boundaries of the presidency. But as he has reminded everyone, his job is to represent all the people of Ireland. While he might find it personally abhorrent to attend the event, his feelings are not actually relevant.

"I have the right to exercise a discretion as to what I think is appropriate for my attendance," he said. But what's appropriate for Michael D Higgins, the leftist firebrand politician and poet from Galway, is not at issue. The only question that matters is what is appropriate for the office of the President of Ireland.

The question is a delicate one and best not decided in a moment – or several months – of pique over the precise wording of the official invite. In the interests of reconciliation, of moving forward, of being a President who represents all traditions, the answer is clearly that he should be going. If Queen Elizabeth could lay a wreath in the Garden of Remembrance, the President of Ireland can grit his teeth and go to a service commemorating the partition.

This isn't the first time he has been accused of allowing his politics to influence the ceremonial mandate of his role. But it may be the first time he has done it with the potential to do real damage. The reaction it provoked was swift and predictable. Jeffrey Donaldson of the DUP described it as "regrettable", a "retrograde step" "based on politics". The President responded, somewhat petulantly, by describing this as "a bit much, to be frank with you". Donaldson would be entirely justified in replying in kind. Anyway, he can't go now, because he'll be busy hosting the Statistical and Social Inquiry Association of Ireland – no doubt an affair of huge significance but which, in the circumstances, sounded like the presidential equivalent of washing your hair.

Higgins's handling of the first tranche of centenary celebrations was rightly praised. But we're now into a more difficult phase, one that requires deftness, sensitivity and an awareness that every word and gesture will be scrutinised. As he navigates it, it's worth revisiting his own words earlier this year on BBC Radio Ulster. The "moral choice" is "not to allow some event of the past have the capacity to disable you in the present and remove options for the future", he said about the centenary of the Irish state. Paraphrasing King George, he said, "This is where we are now ... and what the future will be like is up to you and it's up to you to make the best of it." It's advice he'd do well to remember.