Republic of Ireland news

Dublin government defends President Higgins decision to avoid NI centenary ceremony

Michael D Higgins declined to go to the service in Armagh. Picture by Chris Bellew
James Ward, PA

The Dublin government has defended the decision of President Michael D Higgins not to attend a cross-community service to mark the centenary of the formation of Northern Ireland.

The event, taking place at St Patrick’s Church of Ireland Cathedral in Armagh today became the centre of a row last month after President Higgins declined an invitation to attend because he believed it was not politically neutral.

Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney and chief whip Jack Chambers were sent on behalf of the Dublin government.

Speaking in the Dáil, Green Party leader Eamon Ryan defended the president’s position and denied that the government had “snubbed” him by sending its own representatives to the event.

He said: “I’m absolutely certain that there’s no difference or no controversy with regard to the president’s decision.

“The government fully accepted and understood that his decision-making in this regard was absolutely proper.

“His role in this issue is not in any way being called into question, it never was from the very start of this becoming a controversial matter.”

He was responding to a question from Aontú leader Peadar Toibin during Leader’s Questions.

Mr Toibin said: “I believe that your government today is snubbing the President of Ireland, by going against his decision and attending the partition commemoration ceremony.

“How can you square the circle? No matter what euphemisms or language you use in this situation, if the President was right not to attend the event due to its political nature, how is it that you think it is right for the Government to go?”

Mr Toibin was reprimanded by the Leas-Cheann Comhairle Catherine Connolly, who said it was a longstanding practice that the President not be drawn into any argument in the Dail, and that the Government should not be asked to comment on him.

Mr Ryan said he was willing to procced and answer the question, and said while the Government respected the President’s decision, it did not preclude them from sending their own representatives.

“The Government, the various arms of the Oireachtas of our Constitution have different requirements and obligations and considerations,” he said.

He added: “The Minister of Foreign Affairs is engaged on an ongoing basis in the north, and the Government felt it was absolutely appropriate and right for us, while absolutely acknowledging the President’s decision and his rightful approach in this regard, that didn’t preclude the Government sending a representative.”

The event, titled A Service of Reflection and Hope, was organised by the leaders of the main churches.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Brandon Lewis, First Minister Paul Givan, DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, UUP leader Doug Beattie, SDLP leader Colum Eastwood and Alliance leader Naomi Long also attended the service.

The Queen had been set to attend but was unable to travel after she fell ill. She was represented by the President Michael D Higgins, Lord Caledon.

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