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Kathy Sheridan: Armagh invite controversy reveals bafflingly poor planning

President should have anticipated likely response to decision not to attend Armagh service

In any nuanced debate about the Armagh invitation either side with a few functioning brain cells could win the argument – or at least be humble and self-aware enough to concede that both sides have a point. The President’s decision to decline will not leave a lasting dent in the Áras limo; that will be the four days of megaphoned hostilities between our head of State and a former taoiseach, John Bruton, that was blasted across Europe.

This was more than a “spat”. It was a humiliating public exercise in mis-steps, bare-toothed barbs and bafflingly poor planning. And it took place while our President was in Rome on official State business, representing Ireland; harnessing the soft power in which we pride ourselves.

Bruton’s condescending remark that this was not the opening of a credit union in Kerry, the President’s reference to him as a “former prime minister”, the presumption over the airwaves – later corrected – that the President had over-ridden his constitutional obligations, the President’s gotcha-style defence of credit unions and so on.

Since the only element everyone seems to agree on is that brows were being furrowed about the title and nature of this event six months ago, the cacophony merely highlighted the abysmal lack of a plan to deal with the inevitable outcry.


There was the minimal statement from Rome on the first day of the visit – “the President is not in a position to attend the ceremony... and this has been communicated to the organisers”. On Wednesday, officially, he had nothing further to add.

The fact of being our President or being Michael D does not confer infallibility. He is a wily, seasoned politician

Of course, the DUP, yawn, was in its habitual state of disingenuous, spittle-flecked indignation about “snubs” to the queen and “boycotts”.

Back here our Government was called to clarify its role in the President’s decision. The Independent Group of Senators weighed in with a thumbs down even while admitting they were “uncertain” about the President’s reasoning and unwilling to wait.

By now it was Thursday, day three of the visit, and the President was meeting a slew of other heads of state, discussing his vision for the EU, a European pillar of human rights, Afghanistan.

The meeting with Pope Francis was yet to happen when Bruton appeared on VMTV to suggest the President of Ireland might be in breach of his constitutional obligations.

Day four was Friday, and in what was scheduled as a briefing about his papal encounter, the President spoke about his reasons for declining the Armagh invitation, using the occasion to hiss right back at Bruton.


Among the criticisms levelled at the President was the hiatus during which he failed to explain his reasoning and allowed the controversy to grow – mainly because of the purported snubbing of Queen Elizabeth. Really? The 95-year-old British monarch of 70 years standing is not some tender-skinned ingénue who wouldn’t recognise the delicacy of the President’s situation, the glaring lack of preparedness and the need for a temporary diplomatic silence.

Those pushing for immediate answers from here should have known better. Who stood to gain? By what ancient immutable rule is our presidential office – prized precisely for its lofty position above politics – obliged to respond immediately to any controversy, especially when abroad?

A PR adviser’s instinct may be to come out fighting with a conciliatory mien but this was not about some grimy political stroke. The presidential office epitomises courtesy, a great deal of pomp and protocol in which aides map out every step (literally, on occasion), and above all, dignity.

It's worth remembering that when the hornet's nest is stirred, the hair also stands up on the back of Southern necks

Invitations are pored over many months in advance. Reflection is factored into the job spec because – and this may surprise some supporters – the fact of being our President or being Michael D does not confer infallibility. He is a wily, seasoned politician. Just a few months ago he was willing to complain, reasonably, about time-pressured Bills being dumped en masse on his office.

That made the absence of a rebuttal plan for the Armagh debacle all the more astonishing. The early non-statements followed by suggestions that the invitation was offensively addressed (it wasn’t, that was the yawningly predictable DUP’s sturm und drang at work), that the church leaders had just bashed out a thoughtless title for a deeply complex event (which was originally part of the Northern Ireland Office’s official programme to celebrate the centenary until church leaders demanded that it be removed) all signified chaotic attempts at catch-up.

Without a plan what the President desperately needed was time. Instead of the broadsides he could have announced in that deliberative presidential fashion that he would address the matter comprehensively at an appointed time on his return from Rome.

Moral capital

It takes a steely spine to withstand a 24/7 clamour. But despite our presidential elections collapsing into a cesspit of rumours and gotcha stunts, the office itself through a gallery of distinguished holders has amassed extraordinary reserves of moral capital and with it a rare and precious presumption of good faith – i.e. honesty or sincerity of intention. Because of that presumption no citizen would have rejected that essential breathing space between Rome and Ireland.

A declaration of a 72-hour moratorium would have kept a whole arsenal of powder dry. Early mistakes would have been avoided.

As Denis Bradley commented here on Monday, “our antennae are always alert to the wrong word or the gesture that exposes the underlying intention”.

It’s worth remembering that when the hornet’s nest is stirred, the hair also stands up on the back of Southern necks. Those who believe such incidents can only hasten a united Ireland should listen more carefully. Those on the other side should look to their consciences.

And there should always be a plan.