Northern Ireland news

Moderator says there was cross-border correspondence on centenary church service but President Higgins raised no concerns directly

Rev David Bruce. Picture by Hugh Russell

DEPARTMENT of Foreign Affairs officials and their Northern Ireland Office counterparts discussed the contentious title of next month's inter-church centenary service in Armagh but President Michael D Higgins raised no concerns directly with the organisers, according to Presbyterian Moderator Rev David Bruce.

The moderator was speaking as invitations to the October 21 event were sent out.

It remains unclear whether the Irish government will send a representative to the service, which has been embroiled in controversy since the president declined his invitation on the basis that it has been "politicised", as illustrated by its title – 'service of reflection and hope to mark the centenary of the partition of Ireland and the formation of Northern Ireland'.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin has indicated that he will consider attending, while his Fine Gael cabinet colleague Heather Humphreys said she would be "proud" to go.

In relation to the president's concerns about the title, Rev Bruce said: "we're not saying the President Michael D Higgins did not raise these issues but we are saying he didn't raise them with us."

The leaders of Ireland's four main churches had earlier said in a statement that they were saddened by "the polarised political commentary" around the service, though President Higgins was not mentioned among its three-pages.

The church leaders said they understood that some people will feel unable to attend.

DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said the statement demonstrated "there was no known diplomatic attempt to alter anything" and described it as a "flat refusal to attend".

"Such a stance demonstrates how far the office under Michael D Higgins has drifted from the shared future principles it once espoused," he said.

"This disrespect for the existence of Northern Ireland indicates that Michael D Higgins' office is really a united Ireland champion rather than a leader of reconciliation."

Dr Bruce said that details of the service – "not only its title but its content and its purpose" – had been discussed by officials and that feedback from Dublin and London had been "positive and warm".

“Partition, yes it is a divisive issue of course, but it is a political fact and what we are seeking to do here is reflect upon the effects of it," he told Radio Ulster.

"Some, of course, saw it as tragic, as an undermining of Irishness and an aspiration for a 32 county sovereign Republic. Others saw it as a triumph of statecraft, something that was necessary and gave respect to those who took a different view in the six counties in Northern Ireland which became Northern Ireland."

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