Lone unionist was slated to attend huge 1916 civic dinner... and now may not

President Michael D Higgins inspects the Guard of Honour at the GPO, prior to the military parade as part of the 1916 Easter Rising centenary commemorations in Dublin
President Michael D Higgins inspects the Guard of Honour at the GPO, prior to the military parade as part of the 1916 Easter Rising centenary commemorations in Dublin

It appeared likely that the Easter Rising civic dinner in Belfast which was to feature the Irish president would have had just a solitary unionist council attendee.

Michael D Higgins was due to be guest of honour at the event in Belfast City Hall on April 8 to commemorate the centenary of the Dublin rebellion.

He decided to withdraw over a lack of cross-party support for the plan – prompting the SDLP to accuse the DUP of “sabotage” for declaring flatly that it would not send any representatives.

On Thursday night, the News Letter asked other unionist representatives on Belfast City Council what their stance was.

It is understood the UUP was planning to send just a single representative to the event – and that it may not do so now.

When the TUV’s Jolene Bunting and independent unionist Ruth Patterson were asked their views, both firmly stated they would not go.

Meanwhile, the PUP’s John Kyle said that he and his two colleagues were undecided on the matter until now, but had been inclined not to attend either – given the paramilitary-style marches staged by republicans in the past week.

They will not now go, he added.

It is thought that roughly 300 invitations had been sent out for the dinner, which will still go ahead nonetheless.

A spokesman for Mr Higgins said: “The president accepted the invitation to the civic dinner on the basis that there was cross-party support for the invitation.

“This now is no longer the case, leaving the president with no other option but to withdraw as he does not want to become embroiled in matters of political controversy.”

The 60-strong council is dominated by Sinn Fein, which has 19 councillors.

The DUP is the next biggest party with 12 (followed by the Alliance with eight, and SDLP and UUP jointly with seven).

On March 21, the News Letter had reported that the DUP would definitely not attend, with councillor Christopher Stalford stating: “The Easter rebellion was a virtual non-event in Belfast so why it is felt necessary to go to the considerable expense of a civic dinner to commemorate it is beyond me.”

At that time, the UUP had said it was still mulling over the approach it would take.

The SDLP’s Nichola Mallon (former lord mayor of the city) accused the DUP of carrying out an act of “sabotage” against the event, and of “peddling to extremists”.

She said: “Faced with challenges from former flag protestors and the TUV, the party have buckled at the first opportunity they had to show leadership and mutual respect.”