Northern Ireland news

Church centenary event invite spoke of acknowledging 'failures and hurts' of the past 100 years

President Michael D Higgins

THE INVITATION to next month's centenary church service that was declined by President Michael D Higgins spoke of acknowledging "failures and hurts" of the past 100 years.

The letter on behalf of the heads of Ireland's four main churches, which has been seen by The Irish News, said the October 21 event would "provide the opportunity for honest reflection" and include a "clear affirmation of our shared commitment to building a future marked by peace, reconciliation and a commitment to the common good".

The president has faced criticism from unionists for declining to join the service, which organisers hope will be attended by Queen Elizabeth, alongside political leaders from Britain and both sides of the border.

President Higgins has been forced to clarify his stance on two occasions during his visit to Rome.

He said the title of the service, which will take place in Armagh's Church of Ireland cathedral, "isn't a neutral statement politically".

The event is titled 'Service of Reflection and Hope, to mark the Centenary of the partition of Ireland and the formation of Northern Ireland'.

The president defended his decision not to attend and said he does not intend to revisit the invitation, which he said was the "outcome of a consideration" over the past six months.

He insisted he had "no difficulties about appearing with Her Majesty in Northern Ireland".

"We've met and talked, and neither have I had anything to do with boycotting events. I hope we can help with each others' events," he said.

Responding to comments by former taoiseach John Bruton, who said the president should have been given clear advice and had instead gone off on a "solo run", the president said he "is wrong in his interpretation of the constitution".

"I'm the president of Ireland, that's the constitutional position, the legal position," he said.

President Higgins also corrected a previous claim that the invite had referred to him as President of the Republic of Ireland. He said he had been responding to what DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson had called him.

"I am not snubbing anyone and I am not part of anyone's boycott of any other events in Northern Ireland," he said.

"I wish their service well but they understand that I have the right to exercise a discretion as to what I think is appropriate for my attendance."

Archbishop of Armagh Eamon Martin said the event had not been politicised by church leaders.

"We've been explaining and discussing this event now for maybe six to nine months with all of the various parties and we have always insisted that it will remain apolitical and we hope to try to keep it that way, but we can't rely on others to do that but we will be keeping this as a moment of prayer and reflection," he said.

"And here we are 100 years later on this day, with the repercussions of what happened that year."

Former Presbyterian Moderator Norman Hamilton told The Irish News: “In his comment on Thursday night, the president talked about commemoration and marking – the fact that he is unable to distinguish between the two is utterly baffling.

“For some reason he does not seem to understand the important nuance between marking something and commemorating it.”

Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney insisted the president had made his own decision.

"There was consultation between the Department of Foreign Affairs and the Aras on this issue and many other issues, but I can assure you President Higgins is the kind of person who makes his own decisions," he said.

Asked if he would attend the service if invited, Mr Coveney said: "The Irish government hasn't received an invitation to the event that you refer to but if we do receive an invitation, of course, we'll give it serious consideration."

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald said the president's decision was the "correct one".

"The partition of Ireland costs us to this day, holds us back, divides us," she tweeted.

"Uachtarán na hÉireann has made clear his decision not to attend a commemorative event. His decision is the correct one."

Sinn Féin Junior Minister Declan Kearney said his party would likewise decline an invitation to the event.

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said he understood the organisers' disappointment.

He said the debate around the event had been "two-dimensional".

"President Higgins' time in office has undoubtedly contributed to the healing process across these islands," he said.

"His thoughtful leadership and considered outreach to all communities, beyond the two traditional communities, has stood us in good stead during turbulent times."

DUP MLA Peter Weir said the president's explanation was "as bizarre as it is offensive".

"He should have been open and honest from day one – to mark or not to mark the centenary of Northern Ireland is his right but it speaks volumes about his commitment to reconciliation," he said.

Former Ulster Unionist leader, Steve Aiken tweeted: "For many years I have seen part of my role to explain to my fellow Unionists that, despite our differences, that our Irish neighbours are willing to show us mutual respect & understanding. Right now, regrettably, I'm no longer sure."

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