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Editorial: History retains power to divide

AFTER meeting with President Michael D Higgins at the Vatican yesterday, Pope Francis offered thanks to God that "Ireland has such a wise man as its head".

Whether the pontiff was aware of the controversy around his decision not to attend a church service marking the centenary of Northern Ireland is unclear.

But it was perhaps indicative of the confusion that has surrounded the affair that the head of the Catholic Church in Ireland, Dr Eamon Martin, was at the same time describing the president's absence as "unexpected".

The service next month at Armagh's Church of Ireland cathedral has been jointly organised by the leaders of Ireland's main Christian Churches and is due to be attended by Queen Elizabeth.

President Higgins, who has an exemplary record in the area of reconciliation and was the first in his role to make a state visit to the UK, said his objection lay with the aim of marking "the centenary of the partition of Ireland and the formation of Northern Ireland".

He insisted he had no difficulties appearing with the queen but the title was not a "neutral statement politically".

The president also suggested he had been incorrectly described as the president of the Republic of Ireland rather than simply Ireland. He later clarified that it was the DUP and not organisers that had used this description, which only added to confusion yesterday.

Archbishop Martin yesterday insisted the event is "completely non-political", with the invitation itself saying it would provide an “opportunity for honest reflection on the past one hundred years”.

The north's political leaders were predictably split, with Sinn Féin's Mary Lou McDonald saying the president is right not to attend but the DUP's Sir Jeffrey Donaldson describing it as a "disappointing and retrograde step".

President Higgins may have been unwise to question the DUP's own record of attendance at events, affording it a measure of moral high ground at a time when it is boycotting north-south bodies.

And whatever the view on his decision to decline the Churches' invitation, his handling of the affair is certainly open to question.

Rather than provide a clear explanation when the news first emerged, his position was set out in piecemeal statements which merely left room for further speculation.

It remains unclear why any concerns about this event could not have been resolved at a much earlier stage in the process.

Coming towards end of the 'decade of centenaries', the resulting row also demonstrates again how the contested history of 100 years ago retains the power to divide today.

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