'Government consulted president on centenary invitation but decision was his’

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Irish Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney

By David Young, PA

The Irish Government consulted the president on an invitation to attend a Northern Ireland centenary event but the decision to decline it was his own, a minister has insisted.

Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney said his department did not offer Michael D Higgins any clear advice on whether he should or should not go to the church service in Armagh next month.

Mr Higgins has defended his decision to turn down the invitation to the event, which is expected to be attended by the Queen.

The president said the title of the service, which states that the event will mark the centenaries of the partition of Ireland and the formation of Northern Ireland, has been “politicised” and, as such, it would be inappropriate for him to attend.

Mr Higgins, who is currently on a visit to Rome, said he will not be changing his decision to stay away.

Unionists have criticised his non-attendance, with DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson questioning whether it was politically motivated as a consequence of advice from the Irish Government.

Mr Coveney was asked about the controversy during a visit to Belfast.

“There was consultation between the Department of Foreign Affairs and the Aras (president’s official residence) on this issue and many other issues, but I can assure you President Higgins is the kind of person who makes his own decisions,” he said.

“He listens to all perspectives and then makes a judgment for himself.

“And, you know, he’s made his decision on this. He’s given an explanation as to the basis for that decision and I think we need to respect that.”

The minister said he is “not going to second-guess the decisions of the president of Ireland”.

Irish Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney

“He makes his own decisions and he makes his own judgment calls, and I respect that.”

Mr Coveney added: “My department would be involved with consultations with Aras An Uachtarain and 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’s entitled to make his own decisions on his own diary and the events that he attends, and I think he’s answered for himself on that.”

Asked if he would attend the service himself if invited, Mr Coveney said: “The Irish Government hasn’t received an invitation to the event that you refer to, but, if we do receive an invitation, of course we’ll give it serious consideration.”

Mr Higgins said he will not be reconsidering his decision.

“We are past the point now and I think it is unfortunate,” he told the Irish Times.

The president denied he is snubbing the Queen.

“There is no question of any snub intended to anybody,” he said. “I am not snubbing anyone and I am not part of anyone’s boycott of any other events in Northern Ireland.

“I wish their service well but they understand that I have the right to exercise a discretion as to what I think is appropriate for my attendance.”

Mr Higgins said his issue is with the title of the service.

“What (had started out as) an invitation to a religious service had in fact become a political statement,” he said. “I was also referred to as the president of the Republic of Ireland. I am the president of Ireland.”

Mr Higgins also challenged the DUP criticism.

“It’s a bit much, to be frank with you. I have gone up to Northern Ireland to take part in events,” he said.

“There often has not been a great deal of traffic down from the DUP people who are criticising me now.”

Mr Higgins, who was due to meet the Pope on Friday, said that, on the day of the service, he has already agreed to host the Statistical and Social Inquiry Association of Ireland at his official residence at Aras an Uachtarain in Dublin.

Reacting to Mr Higgins’ latest comments, Sir Jeffrey accused him of “retrograde” steps.

“The president has made his position clear, but I have to say I’m very surprised – I really thought that the president would have risen above the politics of all of this,” the DUP leader told BBC Radio Ulster.

“He uses language that I think is, unfortunately, retrograde. He talks about being the president of Ireland, not the president of the Republic of Ireland, despite the fact that people voted to remove the territorial claim over Northern Ireland and that there was recognition in the constitution of the Republic of Ireland of the existence of Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom.

“I think the language used by the president is not forward-looking and doesn’t recognise the reality that Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom. It’s back to the old days when the president believes that he is president of the whole island, which we all know he is not.

“I have to say that the comments made by President Higgins really are not conducive towards reconciliation.”

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