Northern Ireland news

Critics urged to respect President Higgins' decision not to attend centenary church service

President Michael D Higgins

CRITICS of President Michael D Higgins were last night urged to respect his decision not to attend a church service to mark Northern Ireland's centenary.

The October 21 service at Armagh's Church of Ireland cathedral, which is due to be attended by Queen Elizabeth, has been organised by the leaders of Ireland's five main Christian churches.

A statement issued earlier this week said the president, who is currently on a visit to Rome and due to meet Pope Francis at the Vatican today, was "not in a position to attend" and that the organisers of the event had been informed.

"The president, through his office, has already conveyed his good wishes to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II," the statement said.

"The president has welcomed, and continues to welcome any opportunities to meet with Her Majesty and members of her family."

However, no further explanation has been forthcoming.

The Dublin government had said it did not advise President Higgins to decline the invitation, adding that it would be constitutionally prohibited from doing so.

A spokesperson for the Taoiseach Micheál Martin said that any invitation for a government representative to attend would be considered.

DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said yesterday he had written to the president seeking to establish a reason for declining the invitation.

He said many people would regard President Higgins' decision not to attend as "a snub".

"I think it's very unfortunate that for a service that the focus of which is hope and reconciliation that the head of state of our neighbouring country feels that he is unable to attend," the Lagan Valley MP said.

"We don't know the reasons why that is the case, however, given that the president of the Republic takes advice from the Irish government on such matters, one could conclude that perhaps there is some politics in all of this."

Sir Jeffrey said important progress that was "respectful of our shared history" had been made during the period of the World War One centenary, when he said many, including President Higgins "all worked hard".

The DUP leader said that without knowing the reason for his non-attendance, it was difficult for him to characterise it as a snub.

He said Tánaiste Simon Coveney may be able to offer more detail during his visit north today.

Alliance MP Stephen Farry said he hoped President Higgins would reconsider his position.

"This event is very much in keeping with the reconciliation efforts of successive Irish presidents and the Queen over recent years, and the inclusive approach to marking the decade of centenaries," he said.

Former Presbyterian Moderator Dr John Dunlop said he was "disappointed" by the president's decision, adding it would be "very good" if he changed his mind.

But SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said people needed to respect the president's decision.

"The hallmark of President Higgins' term in office has been a commitment to healing, reconciliation and respect for every tradition on this island," the Foyle MP said.

"He has a strong track record on bringing people together and should be taken at his word that he is unable to attend the event in Armagh but has respectfully passed on his best wishes to the organisers and Queen Elizabeth."

Aontú leader Peadar Tóibín said no president would attend an event to commemorate the partition of his country.

"By all means we need to foster positive healthy relationships with our neighbours but there is nothing healthy in commemorating something that has been so destructive to the Irish people," he said.

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