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President Michael D Higgins denies ‘snub’ over church event with Queen Elizabeth as he hits out at DUP

  • President says what had been a ‘religious event’ marking the centenary of Northern Ireland had become a ‘political statement’
  • Former Taoiseach John Bruton says President may be in breach of Constitution
  • Bruton says it’s ‘not too late’ for President to change his mind on Partition event
  • DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson said the island of Ireland has taken a ‘retrograde step’ in its shared history
  • Coveney: ‘We didn’t give any clear advice to the President in relation to this particular event. I think it’s quite clear... that he made his own decision’

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President Michael D Higgins visiting the grave of philosopher and writer Antonio Gramsci at Rome’s Cimitero Acattolico. Photo: Maxwells

President Michael D Higgins visiting the grave of philosopher and writer Antonio Gramsci at Rome’s Cimitero Acattolico. Photo: Maxwells

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President Michael D Higgins has denied that he snubbed Queen Elizabeth after refusing to attend a church service in Armagh, saying that a “religious event” had become a “political statement”.

It emerged earlier this week that Mr Higgins would not be at a centenary church commemoration of partition and the establishment of Northern Ireland scheduled for next month in Co Armagh.

This morning, Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leader Jeffrey Donaldson said the island of Ireland has taken a “retrograde step” in its shared history.

And former Taoiseach John Bruton said the Taoiseach may have breached the Constitution if he did not seek the advice of the Government before declining the invitation.

Speaking to media in Rome, Mr Higgins said that he is not attending the event because he said it has become a “political statement”.

"What had once been an invitation to religious service, or a religious event had become, in fact, a political statement.

“What began as a religious service or reconciliation is now the celebrating, the marking, I think is the word used, the partition of Ireland and the creation of Northern Ireland….It’s a different thing,” he said.

Mr Higgins said that his sole reason for not attending is “in relation to the title” of the event.

He said that he has a “discretion” for what events thinks are “appropriate” for him to attend.

He said that the titles of events would decide whether or not they are an “impropriety” for a Head of State to attend.

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The Archbishops Conference said earlier this week that the event would be a “Christian commitment to peace, healing and reconciliation underpins Service of Reflection and Hope to mark the partition of Ireland and the formation of Northern Ireland”.

Mr Higgins took issue with the title of the event and said that he had been “troubling” about this event for a “long while”.

“It was in relation to which the event was titled. It’s not the event itself. Conciliation is fine. People can praise as much as they like.

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President Michael D Higgins visiting the grave of philosopher and writer Antonio Gramsci at Rome’s Cimitero Acattolico. Photo: Maxwells

President Michael D Higgins visiting the grave of philosopher and writer Antonio Gramsci at Rome’s Cimitero Acattolico. Photo: Maxwells

President Michael D Higgins visiting the grave of philosopher and writer Antonio Gramsci at Rome’s Cimitero Acattolico. Photo: Maxwells

“I am completely open to anyone in Northern Ireland of any Unionist tradition, completely, celebrating that in any way they like,” he said.

He called on people to now “move on” without “gratuitously insulting each other."

The President also took a dig at “the DUP people” failing to attend events in Northern Ireland whenever he is there.

“It's a bit much now to be quite frank with you,” he said.

“I've gone up to Northern Ireland to take part in events in Queens [University}, and events in the University of Ulster and so forth. And there hasn't been often the great traffic down from the DUP people who are criticising me now.”

DUP Assembly member Peter Weir wrote to the President, asking if he was joining Sinn Féin and the SDLP in “boycotting” such events, a move which he said “speaks volumes” about Ireland’s “commitment to reconciliation and progress”.

Mr Higgins said that his office will respond to Mr Weir and denied that he is “snubbing” anyone or “boycotting” the event.

"I am not snubbing anyone, and I am not part [of it] because I don't agree with it - I am not part of anyone’s boycott of any other events in Northern Ireland. And I'm continuing with my own, and I respect everyone else's. And that's all I want us to do,” he said.

He also said that he “appreciates” what Michael Nesbitt and his “thoughtful response” after the Ulster Unionist MLA said Mr Higgins’ decision to not attend was “surprising” and “uncharacteristic”.

He said that an invitation is not a “injunction or an instruction" and also took issue with the invite referring to him as President of the Republic of Ireland.

“They keep referring to me as the President of the Republic of Ireland - I am the President of Ireland,” he said.

Speaking this morning, Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney said his department did not give any “clear advice” to President Higgins in relation to attending the Northern Ireland Centenary church service in Armagh, at which the Queen will be in attendance.

“My department would be involved in consultations with Áras an Úachtarán, 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. 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 is entitled to make his own decisions on his own diary and the events he attends. I think he has answered for himself on that,” Minister Coveney told the BBC.

Minister Coveney also confirmed the Irish Government did not receive an invite to the event.

“The Irish Government hasn’t received an invite to the event...but if we do receive an invitation, of course we will give it serious consideration,” Mr Coveney said.

Former Taoiseach John Bruton said he believes President Higgins is “wrong” not to attend the centenary, and that he may be in breach of the Constitution.

"I think he is wrong not to attend, and I think there is time for him to change his mind,” Mr Bruton said on Newstalk Breakfast today.

"Obviously it requires great strength of character to change one's mind, but I think he should do so.

"And it is important to recognise that fact - the fact that Northern Ireland exists and is legitimate - was recognised by the Irish people when they voted in the referendum on the Good Friday Agreement.

"The Good Friday Agreement accepts that it is the present wish of the people of Northern Ireland that they remain in the United Kingdom until that view is changed.

"So in going to this event and recognising that Northern Ireland existed for the last hundred years, the President would simply be recognising something that the Irish people have recognised."

The former Taoiseach said this is “one of the most important invitations he would have received as President.”

“It wasn't an invitation to the opening of a credit union in Co Kerry,” he added.

"This was an invitation to attend an event which deals with a very difficult issue upon which policy is made by the Government.

"We can't have two policies on Northern Ireland - one being made by the Government is Merrion Street, and another being made in the Phoenix Park.

“Reach out to the Unionist community, which we need to do, both over the Northern Ireland Protocol and also over the future of our country."

Meanwhile, Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leader Jeffrey Donaldson said the island of Ireland has taken a “retrograde step” in its shared history.

Speaking to RTÉ Radio One’s Morning Ireland today, Mr Donaldson said: “It is regrettable that the head of state for the Republic of Ireland feels that he cannot attend this service because it’s not about politics, it’s actually about hope and reconciliation.

"We are not asking President Higgins, and it’s not my invitation, but, the churches aren't asking President Higgins to attend some kind of reenactment event or some kind of political event, it is a church service, and actually Arlene Foster attended a church service for a similar purpose in Dublin at the time of the centenary of the Easter Rising.”

The DUP leader added that when he chaired The Centenary Committee in Northern Ireland he “made an effort to travel to Dublin and other places as part of that centenary.”

He added: “And I think we made real progress together in recognising our shared history and I think it is a retrograde step that we haven't continued with that in respect of attendance [of President Higgins] at this particular service.”

Mr Donaldson said in order to build a shared future on the island “then surely a starting point must be that we recognise our shared history.”

He added: “I’m not asking President Higgins, nor are the church leaders, to do anything other than mark an event, a moment in history that helped to shape and define both parts of this island over the last 100 years.

“We are not asking him to become a Unionist.

“We hear a lot of words about respecting and recognising Unionism but when it comes to stepping up on the mark on this I’m afraid that hasn’t happened.”

The President is currently visiting Rome and will be meeting Pope Francis for the fourth time on Friday.


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