By David Young, PA
The Irish President has defended his decision to decline an invitation to a church service marking Northern Ireland’s centenary which will be attended by the Queen.
Michael D Higgins said the title of the event, which states the service will mark the centenaries of the partition of Ireland and the formation of Northern Ireland, is being “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 revisiting his decision to stay away from the service in Armagh next month.
“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. I am not snubbing anyone and I am not part of anyone’s boycott of any other events in Northern Ireland,” he said.
“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.
Pictured - President Michael D Higgins
“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.”
Meanwhile, speaking to reporters in Rome, President Michael D Higgins said the decision to decline an invitation to the event came after six months of consideration.
He said his officials had raised concerns about the “title and structure” of the event from March.
“That’s the beginning, so it isn’t a sudden decision, the decision is the outcome of a consideration,” he told RTE.
Mr Higgins said he had no difficulties appearing at events in Northern Ireland alongside the Queen and insisting he was not involved in any “boycott” of events related to the centenary.
The president also moved to clarify a claim he made on Thursday, namely that the organisers of the event had referred to him as the President of the Republic of Ireland, not the President of Ireland.
He said it was actually the DUP that had referred to him as President of the Republic of Ireland.
“I may be responsible for creating a small confusion and that is the organisers writing to my office have always referred to me as President of Ireland,” he said.
Unionists have questioned Mr Higgins’ decision not to attend, with DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson asking whether it is politically motivated as a consequence of advice from the Irish Government. The Government in Dublin has denied it influenced the president’s move.
Mr Higgins 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 is 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.
Sir Jeffrey Donaldson told Q Radio the President's decision was the wrong one:
“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,”.
Sir Jeffrey added: “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.”
Pictured - Sir Jeffrey Donaldson