President Michael D Higgins hits out at DUP over NI centenary service invite
President Michael D Higgins has defended his decision to decline an invitation to a church service marking Northern Ireland’s centenary which will be attended by Queen Elizabeth.
The president said the title of the event, which states the service will mark the centenaries of the partition of Ireland and the formation of Northern Ireland, is being “politicised” and, as such, it would be inappropriate for him to attend.
President Higgins, who is currently on a visit to Rome, said he will not be revisiting his decision to stay away from the service in Armagh next month.
“We are past the point now and I think it is unfortunate,” he told the Irish Times.
The president denied he is snubbing Queen Elizabeth.
“There is no question of any snub intended to anybody. 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.”
President Higgins said his issue is with the title of the service.
“What (had started out as) an invitation to a religious service had in fact become a political statement,” he said. “I was also referred to as the President of the Republic of Ireland. I am the President of Ireland.”
Unionists have questioned Mr Higgins’ decision not to attend, with DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson asking whether it is politically motivated as a consequence of advice from the Dublin government. The government has denied it influenced the president’s move.
President Higgins challenged the DUP criticism.
“It’s a bit much, to be frank with you. I have gone up to Northern Ireland to take part in events,” he said.
“There often has not been a great deal of traffic down from the DUP people who are criticising me now.”
President Higgins, who is due to meet Pope Francis today, said that, on the day of the service, he has already agreed to host the Statistical and Social Inquiry Association of Ireland at his official residence at Áras an Uachtaráin in Dublin.
The Republic's Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney has insisted that President Higgins made his own decision when choosing not to attend the service.
Mr Coveney, who is in Belfast for a series of engagements, said the government gave Mr Higgins no "clear advice" on the invitation to the event in Armagh.
"My department would be involved with consultations with Áras An Uachtaráin and the president's team regularly on a lot of things, we didn't give any clear advice to the president in relation to this particular event," he said.
"I think it's quite clear from the statements that the president has made in relation to it that he made his own decision. He is the head of state, he's entitled to make his own decisions on his own diary and the events that he attends, and I think he's answered for himself on that."
Irish Foreign Affairs Minister @simoncoveney says his department consulted with @PresidentIRL about the invite to attend the NI centenary service in Armagh but insisted Michael D Higgins made his own decision not to attend. pic.twitter.com/9QQbLpzpj3— David Young (@DavidYoungPA) September 17, 2021
Simon Coveney said there was "consultation" between his department and the president's team on the invite but he insisted Mr Higgins made the decision not to attend.
"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.
"He listens to all perspectives and then makes a judgment for himself.
"And, you know, he's made his decision on this. He's given an explanation as to the basis for that decision and I think we need to respect that."
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."
Mr Coveney said he was "not going to second-guess the decisions of the president of Ireland".
"He makes his own decisions and he makes his own judgment calls, and I respect that," he said.