Ex-Taoiseach John Bruton questions Irish state’s acceptance of Good Friday Agreement after Michael D Higgins declines invite to joint service marking centenary of Northern Ireland

Former taoiseach John Bruton says Michael D Higgins’ decision to decline an invitation from church leaders to a service marking partition and the formation of NI “opens serious questions” about Dublin’s acceptance of the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement.

Monday, 20th September 2021, 5:12 pm
Updated Monday, 20th September 2021, 5:23 pm

And church leaders organising the event said that although they were crafting details of the event since before March this year to suit all parties concerned, Mr Higgins only told them last week he would not be attending - something Mr Higgins firmly denied.

The service, to be attended by the Queen next month, will take place in the Church of Ireland Cathedral in Armagh and will be attended by representatives of the four largest Irish churches.

Mr Bruton suggested that the decision of Mr Higgins not to attend raises questions about the Irish state’s commitment to key parts of the Belfast Agreement.

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Irish President Michael D Higgins said he will not be revisiting his decision to stay away from the service in Armagh next month.

He said Mr Higgins was invited to the event in Co Armagh five months ago “so there was ample time” in consultation with the Irish government “to iron out any protocol difficulties that might have inhibited” his acceptance of the invitation.

He added that “it would appear the church leaders got no reply from him until last week, a rather slow way for the President of Ireland to respond to the church leaders of Ireland”.

Mr Bruton told the Irish Times that “the Good Friday [Belfast] Agreement says the participants accept that ‘the present wish of the people of Northern Ireland, freely exercised and legitimate is to maintain the union’ and adds that Northern Ireland’s status as part of the UK ‘reflects and relies upon that wish’”.

He added that this was endorsed in the referendum on the agreement and that “a refusal by this state to attend an event that marks the anniversary of something we have accepted in a referendum opens serious questions”.

Church leaders said on Sunday that they were keen to address any concerns that Mr Higgins might have had. Speaking about Mr Higgins’ concerns that the title of the event was “politicised” as it mentioned partition, Catholic Primate Archbishop Eamon Martin told RTÉ, “We only learned that this week”.

Church of Ireland Primate Archbishop John McDowell added: “If someone had made us aware back then that there was a problem with it, of course we would have looked at that.”

But Mr Higgins’ spokesman insisted Mr Higgins made his concerns known in March.

“The President had concluded that if the narrative remained – which was ‘to mark the [centenary of the] partition of the island of Ireland and the foundation of Northern Ireland’ – that he would have to wish the participants well, but that he could not attend,” he said in a statement.

“The President has been keen to be helpful at all times. He is anxious that we all move forward, with respect, and he will not be commenting further on this matter.”

The Irish Times said Irish government sources suggested that crossed wires between the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs and the president’s office led to the issuing and rejection of the invitation - and that normally an invitation would not be issued unless it was certain to be accepted.

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