Sinn Féin and Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney were among those attending a church event on Friday that was advertised as marking “the centenary of the creation of Northern Ireland, and the partition of Ireland”, it has emerged.
President Michael D Higgins has declined to attend a church service in Armagh next month because the event is billed as “marking the centenaries of the partition of Ireland and the foundation of Northern Ireland”.
Mr Higgins’s decision has been backed by Sinn Féin, which said it would also refuse to attend such an event, if invited. This is despite the party’s Stormont minister Declan Kearney attending the ‘On These Steps’ event at the Presbyterian church in Ireland’s Union Theological College in Belfast on Friday.
The event was supported by the Department of Foreign Affairs Reconciliation Fund and was billed by the Presbyterian church as a “special event marking the role played by Union Theological College in hosting Northern Ireland’s Parliament in 1921, and the centenary of the partition of Ireland and creation of Northern Ireland that same year”.
A Sinn Féin spokesperson said: “Sinn Féin has regularly attended events that afford us the opportunity to engage, debate and articulate our position on partition and the wholly negative consequences it has had on our island for the past century. The event that Uachtarán na hÉireann chose not to attend was not of this nature, and his decision not to attend was the correct one.”
The Department of Foreign Affairs did not respond to questions about Friday’s event and how much it contributed toward it.
Britain’s Queen Elizabeth is expected to attend next month’s church service, but a source told the Sunday Independent yesterday that there was deep unhappiness among her representatives – and at the Northern Ireland Office - that details of her planned visit emerged last week, after the Áras issued a press statement to The Irish Times.
It is against Royal protocol to disclose the Queen’s movements in Northern Ireland so far in advance of a visit due to the long-standing security situation, particularly in the Border region.
Both Buckingham Palace and the Northern Ireland Office declined to comment when contacted yesterday.
Asked to comment last night on Wednesday’s disclosure of the Queen’s intended participation, a spokesperson for the President referred only to his comments later in the week, when he spoke to Irish journalists in Rome “about the background and his reasoning for arriving at his decision regarding the proposed service in Armagh cathedral.
“The President has stressed more than once that his decisions in such matters are his responsibility, and the decisions of Her Majesty are equally independent, and that this independence must always be respected,” he added.
The President’s decision to stay away has caused a diplomatic row, with former taoiseach John Bruton criticising him.
Mr Bruton last night told the Sunday Independent every effort should be made to find a way to allow Mr Higgins to attend, but the Government in Dublin is believed unlikely to intervene.
“If he doesn’t attend on behalf of the State, it shows in a sense that we in this State have not reconciled ourselves at a deeper level to things we have formally accepted — such as the Good Friday Agreement, where the Irish people recognised the status of Northern Ireland as part of the union,” Mr Bruton said.
“I still hope efforts will be made behind the scenes to find a formula — in respect of both the description of the event and the event itself — that would allow him to attend,” Mr Bruton said.
A government source said last night: “The President has made his decision and, as the Taoiseach said, the Government respects that.”