Keep the focus on Higgins; not Sinn Fein, say Ulster Unionists

Mike Nesbitt
Mike Nesbitt

The focus should remain on the Irish President’s historic state visit to the UK — not on Martin McGuinness’s decision to attend a Royal banquet, Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt has said.

The UUP leader said that Sinn Fein was “playing catch-up” after “having so badly misjudged the mood when Her Majesty the Queen visited the Republic three years ago”.

He added: “This week sees a reciprocal state visit by the President of the Republic of Ireland and this is not something that the media should allow to be hijacked by Sinn Fein.”

He added: “The Queen is showing true leadership in addressing British-Irish relations, putting the country first, despite many reasons why she might have personal reservations.

“I have no doubt Her Majesty is aware the invitation will cause deep hurt among many victims and survivors. I would be surprised if she does not address this over the course of the state visit.”

DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds welcomed the fact that Mr McGuinness would be present for the banquet.

He said: “Attendance at the state event is recognition of Northern Ireland’s place as part of the United Kingdom with the Queen as head of state.

“Had Martin McGuinness succeeded in his bid to become president then we can only speculate as to whether this visit would have happened.”

Some victims of IRA terrorism are to protest outside the state banquet. When asked about that, Secretary of State Theresa Villiers said: “Invitations to these kind of events are always matters for Buckingham Palace to take a decision on but obviously I think, as I said, the Office of First Minister and Deputy First Minister is a very important one in Northern Ireland and I think that it was entirely appropriate that the First and Deputy First Minister were invited to take part in the state visit.

“I recognise the sensitivity of these matters for the victims of terrorism; there have been a lot of tremendously difficult decisions that have been made over the years but they have contributed to bringing peace to Northern Ireland and contributed to going forward with reconciliation.

“I hope that the Deputy First Minister’s presence at the events this week will be a further step forward, whilst recognising the difficulty they will pose for some of the victims of terrorism.”

SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell said: “This presidential state visit reflects the change in wider British-Irish relations and must be seen in the context of the healing that is taking place in the north.”