Republic of Ireland news

Dublin government will be represented at NI centenary church service

Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney is set to attend the service

The Dublin government has said it will be represented at a church service to mark the centenary of Northern Ireland.

Last month, President Michael D Higgins caused controversy when he said he would not attend the service in Armagh because he believed it was not politically neutral.

The prayer service, which the Queen is expected to attend, has been organised by the four main churches in Northern Ireland.

A statement from the Dublin government said that it would be sending minister for foreign affairs Simon Coveney, as well as Government chief whip Jack Chambers.

However, it also said that it gave “full support” to the decision by the president not to attend.

The statement said: “The Government has today considered the invitation which it received from the Church Leaders Group to the Service of Reflection and Hope which the group is organising in Armagh later this month.

“In considering the invitation, the Government noted that its role in this matter is clearly distinct from that of the president.

“In that regard, the Government reiterates its full support and understanding for the decision made by president Higgins with regard to his attendance at the event.

“That decision was quite properly made by the president and was based on concerns that he had consistently expressed.

“Cognisant of that important distinction, and in recognition also of the spirit and intentions of the church leaders in organising the event, the Government has decided that it will be represented at the event by the minister for foreign affairs and by the Government chief whip.”

Colum Eastwood, leader of the SDLP, has also said his party will attend the church service because he believed it would help to “break down barriers”.

He said: “Attending a church service in Armagh, the ecclesiastical capital of Ireland, to mark the centenary of partition does not diminish anyone’s Irish nationalism.

“It will however, I hope, help to break down the barriers of distrust that have endured between our communities.”

The Foyle MP added: “The decision we have made wasn’t motivated by the establishment or the churches. This is about stretching ourselves to heal the wounds of partition.

“It is about reaching beyond ourselves and reaching out to people from a different tradition, many of whom are considering a new future for our island for the first time.

“My job as a leader of nationalism is to speak to them, to hear their concerns and to convince them that change is possible.

“I understand that this will be a challenging decision for some and others have come to a different determination. But it wasn’t difficult for me.

“Given the choice between remaining in the trenches of the last 100 years or reaching out to build a new future, I know which side I want to be on.”

Sinn Féin has said it will not send a representative to the event.

Unionists were heavily critical of the decision by president Higgins not to attend the cross-community service.

DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said he had “set back north-south relations” in Ireland.

Mr Higgins said that he declined his invitation because he believed it was not politically neutral and because he had concerns about the title of the event.

The leaders of the Church of Ireland, Catholic, Presbyterian and Methodist churches said the service was to “explore the opportunity to deepen the work of reconciliation in a context of respectful dialogue”.

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