President and Armagh service

 

Sir, – It seems to many of us of all faiths or none that much of the argument about President Michael D Higgins’s attendance or non-attendance at the forthcoming ecumenical service to mark partition and the creation of Northern Ireland misses the main points.

The jingoistic terms in which the official centenary programme was launched prevented any inclusive endeavour.

As Boris Johnson put it with staggering insensitivity in a Northern Ireland context and indeed with ludicrous hyperbole, “It is something obviously to celebrate because I love and believe in the Union that makes up the United Kingdom, the most successful political partnership in the world”.

The centenary had to be marked; it would have been dishonest to evade it. Some of us organised an alternative programme of lectures outside the official programme which indeed took a critical look at the events leading to the creation of Northern Ireland and its subsequent chequered record.

Our programme also included a highly critical lecture on the early record of the Irish Free State.

It was the misfortune of the churches that their proposed ecumenical service was at the outset tainted by inclusion in the official programme, even if they rapidly secured its withdrawal. As they have clearly liaised with both the Northern Ireland Office and the Department of Foreign Affairs, it would seem that God has nonetheless been unable to act wholly independently. Indeed the very act of inviting the President and Queen Elizabeth made it clear that the intention was to co-opt states into what might have been a purely religious occasion.

So what are we left with? A service “to mark the centenary of the partition of Ireland and the establishment of Northern Ireland”.

However that is dressed up with talk about hopes for the future which we all share, it is irrevocably about the past and remains highly political.

There is only one form of service which we could all endorse – a service of repentance by the main churches for the often leading role that they played in exacerbating sectarian tensions throughout the latter part of the 19th century and into the 20th century, despite the honourable exceptions of a minority of their clergy. It could be argued that the forces of division were already there but in reenforcing them the churches made partition, and on an avowedly sectarian basis, more certain.

President Higgins has an entirely rational and enlightened case for non-attendance at the service and is to be commended for organising his own inclusive programme of events to mark these difficult years in our history. – Yours, etc,

JOHN GRAY,

Belfast.

Sir, – Pat Leahy in his Saturday column “Inside Politics made some very good points with regard to the President’s refusal to attend Armagh Cathedral.

I feel that if Mary McAleese were still our president she would have found a diplomatic way to accept the invitation. The refusal seemed a backward step! – Yours, etc,

ANNE KIERNAN,

Mullingar,

Co Westmeath.

Sir, – Archbishop Eamon Martin’s apologia (“Why I am taking part in service to mark partition”, Opinion, October 19th) for his attendance at the controversial church service in Armagh, planned for October 21st, strikes me as sanctimonious and unconvincing. Surely if he and other church leaders want to promote peace and reconciliation, it would be more useful to start immediately to create interdenominational school systems in Northern Ireland? – Yours, etc,

SHANE BUTLER,

Rathfarnham,

Dublin 16.