Q Radio News/PA
Unionists have questioned why the Irish president has declined an invite to attend a church service alongside the Queen to mark Northern Ireland’s centenary.
The DUP and Ulster Unionists have asked for clarity after it emerged that Michael D Higgins would not be present at the event in Armagh next month.
It is understood the Queen has also been invited to the service, which is a focal point of a programme of events in 2021 to mark 100 years since the island of Ireland was partitioned.
A spokesperson for the Irish president told the Irish Times: “The President is not in a position to attend the ceremony you mention, and this has beencommunicated to the organisers.
They did not say why he would not attend.
“The President, through his office, has already conveyed his good wishes to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.
“The President has welcomed, and continues to welcome any opportunities to meet with Her Majesty and members of her family.”
President Michael D. Higgins
The creation of Northern Ireland in 1921 remains highly divisive a century on and unionists and nationalists have contrasting views on the anniversary.
Nationalist politicians in Northern Ireland have not been participating in events organised by the UK Government to mark the centenary.
DUP leader, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson told the BBC Nolan Show that he believed it was a disappointing decision.
He added: “When you look at the Irish constitution it states that the Irish President takes decisions on the advice of the Irish government and one wonders has the Irish government advised the president not to attend this service and was that decision taken for political reasons.
“If you read the invitation, if you read the nature of this service it has been convened by the four main churches in Northern Ireland, it is about marking the centenary of Northern Ireland.
“That is a fairly neutral term and it means that people can take part in the service, whatever their political perspective and recognise the reality that Northern Ireland has existed for 100 years.
“We don’t know the reason why the president of the Republic of Ireland has decided not to attend this service.
“It begs the question has the Irish government offered advice to the president that he should not attend this for political reasons.”
(Sir Jeffrey Donaldson says he believes it is a political decision on the part of the Irish president)
Sir Jeffrey added: “We hope that President Higgins will rethink this decision because it is not conducive to the kind of respectful relationship which we want to see for the head of state of our neighbouring jurisdiction not to attend a service of this nature.
“In the absence of clarity around the reason for president Higgins not attending this service I think many may reach the conclusion that it is a decision based on politics.
“When you consider the standard that Her Majesty the Queen has set when she went to Dublin in that historic visit and indeed went to Cork and other parts of the Republic of Ireland as well, she crossed many boundaries in the visit, she broke many taboos.
“I think she set a lead and a clear example of how to do reconciliation.
“I think it is a retrograde step, it takes us backwards when the President of the Republic of Ireland cannot attend a service of this nature which has been called by the churches.
“The churches are setting an example here.
“That sets the tone for this service and it is regrettable that President Higgins is unable to attend.”
Meanwhile DUP MLA Peter Weir has written to Mr Higgins asking if he is engaging in a “boycott” of the centenary event.
“The Republic of Ireland’s president has turned down an invitation to be a guest at a service in Armagh marking the centenary of Northern Ireland,” he said.
“I have written to the Irish president asking if his office is officially snubbing all events marking this milestone in the decade of centenaries.
“If President Higgins is officially snubbing NI Centenary events, I have urged him to think again. This island has been living through a decade of centenary milestones.
“At every stage unionism has engaged positively and sought to use such events to advance reconciliation and peace.
“It is narrow-minded and deeply disappointing that Sinn Fein and the SDLP have vetoed almost every publicly funded initiative to mark Northern Ireland’s centenary.
“They even vetoed the placement of a centenary stone in Parliament Buildings even though it was being gifted by unionist MLAs.
“For such high office in the Republic of Ireland to join Sinn Fein and the SDLP in boycotting centenary events speaks volumes about that country’s commitment to reconciliation and progress.”
MLA Peter Weir - has written to President Higgins asking if he was engaging in a “boycott”.
Ulster Unionist Mike Nesbitt said the move by Mr Higgins was “uncharacteristic”.
“The news that President Michael D Higgins has declined an invitation to attend a service at Armagh Cathedral alongside Her Majesty The Queen to mark the Centenary of Northern Ireland, is surprising and uncharacteristic from someone who has shown a consistent willingness to reach out and promote reconciliation,” he said.
“The reciprocal State Visits were a high watermark in Anglo Irish relations and until we know the reason why he is ‘not in a position to attend’ we cannot be critical.
“Whether the President of Ireland attends or not should not detract from the fact Her Majesty the Queen will be in Northern Ireland marking our centenary at a church service which will see both Catholic and Church of Ireland Primates participate in an event entirely consistent with the Ulster Unionist vision of a Union of People.”