Irish President Michael D Higgins hits back over NI Centenary event but faces more unionist criticism

Irish President Michael D Higgins, in hitting back at criticism of his choice not to attend a Northern Ireland centenary event alongside the Queen, has been subject to further criticism from unionists.

Friday, 17th September 2021, 9:32 pm
Irish President Michael D Higgins during the Funeral of Pat Hume at at St Eugene's Cathedral in Londonderry. Pic Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker

Reacting to Mr Higgins’ latest comments, DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson accused him of “retrograde” steps, while former UUP leader Mike Nesbitt said his decision “has the potential to infect good relations and reconciliation across this entire island and beyond”.

The Irish president said the title of the service, which states that the event will mark the centenaries of the partition of Ireland and the formation of Northern Ireland, has been “politicised” and, as such, it would be inappropriate for him to attend.

DUP MP Sammy Wilson said that Mr Higgins refusal to attend the joint service of commemoration shows “the belligerence of the Irish establishment” while MLA Peter Weir said the entire episode is “as bizarre as it is offensive”.

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Democratic Unionist party leader Jeffrey Donaldson speaks to the media during an event hosted by the Presbyterian Church to mark the centenary of Northern Ireland at Union Theological College, Belfast. Picture date: Friday September 17, 2021.

Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney said the Irish Government consulted the president on an invitation to attend a Northern Ireland centenary event but the decision to decline it was his own, a decision which Mr Higgins said he will not be reconsidering.

“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,” he said. “I am not snubbing anyone and I am not part of anyone’s boycott of any other events in Northern Ireland.

Ireland's Minister for Foreign Affairs, Simon Coveney arrives for an event hosted by the Presbyterian Church to mark the centenary of Northern Ireland at Union Theological College, Belfast. Picture date: Friday September 17, 2021.

“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.”

He said the decision to decline an invitation to an event commemorating the centenary of Northern Ireland came after six months of consideration. He said his officials had raised concerns about the “title and structure” of the event from March.

He said: “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.”

The president later clarified that remark, saying that it was the DUP that had referred to him as President of the Republic of Ireland and not the organisers of the event.

Mr Higgins challenged the DUP criticism of his decision: “It’s a bit much, to be frank with you. I have gone up to Northern Ireland to take part in events.

“There often has not been a great deal of traffic down from the DUP people who are criticising me now.”

Mr Higgins, who met the Pope today, 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.

Reacting to Mr Higgins’ latest comments, the DUP leader said: “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,” the DUP leader told BBC Radio Ulster.

“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.”

His party colleague Sammy Wilson commented: “Simon Coveney and Leo Varadkar sought to use Brexit to destroy our economy and tear us out of the UK. Now the Irish President shows either the bigotry or the cowardice of the Irish establishment by refusing to attend a church service which ironically the Roman Catholic church is helping to organise.

“Unionists willingly joined in commemorating the events which led to the foundation of the Irish Republic, even though its formation involved bloodshed and murder.

“It is sad that Michael D Higgins finds himself unwilling to reach out the hand of friendship which had been offered by Her Majesty The Queen and both Church and Unionist leaders.”

Former UUP leader Mike Nesbitt has expressed surprise and regret at the Irish President’s explanation, commenting that he has admired Mr Higgins and found him at times inspiring.

He said the President’ decision has the potential to infect good relations and reconciliation across this entire island and beyond”.

The MLA said: “Up to this point, I have admired Michael D Higgins’ commitment to outreach and reconciliation. My personal exchanges with him have been productive and at times inspiring, but this decision hits reverse gear hard.

“If there was a problem with language then there is no reason why the Presidential support staff could not have opened a quiet back channel to resolve all issues of language.”

Mr Nesbitt continued: “Then I hear former Taoiseach John Bruton remind us the President of Ireland has a duty, written into their constitution, to consult the Government of Ireland on matters such as attending this church service, but he appears to have gone on a solo run.

“I take no pleasure in describing his decision as a massive own goal, because it has become about much more than a single event in Armagh, it has the potential to infect good relations and reconciliation across this entire island and beyond.

“My sympathies are with the service organisers. A church service organised by the four main churches, including the two all-Ireland Primates and the respective Heads of State would have been an entirely appropriate, well-balanced occasion and consistent with my party’s vision of a Union of People.

“Now there will be an inevitable imbalance, not of the organisers’ making.”

DUP Strangford MLA Peter Weir said: “Each time President Higgins speaks about his boycott of this event, the rationale for his snub becomes more bizarre, backward and offensive.

“He should have been open and honest from day one. To mark or not to mark the centenary of Northern Ireland is his right but it speaks volumes about his commitment to reconciliation.

“President Higgins now joins Sinn Fein and the SDLP in snubbing Northern Ireland’s centenary.

“Such narrowness is no way to build a shared future.”

The Irish Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney, during a visit to Belfast yesterday, said: “There was consultation between the Department of Foreign Affairs and the Aras (president’s official residence) on this issue and many other issues, but I can assure you President Higgins is the kind of person who makes his own decisions.

“He listens to all perspectives and then makes a judgment for himself.

“He makes his own decisions and he makes his own judgment calls, and I respect that.”

Mr Coveney went on to say the relationship between the British and Irish governments “is probably as distant as I can remember it”.

He said: “I hope that Conor (Burns, the new minister of state in the Northern Ireland Office) and I can work on improving that.

“It’s not that there is any animosity there but it is not a close one in the way that it has been in the past, and I think if we’re all honest, the political challenges of the last number of years, in particular linked to Brexit and what has developed into the issues around the protocol, has created a polarised environment in Northern Ireland, which is at times contributed to by commentary in London and Dublin, and sometimes Brussels too.”

Meanwhile President Higgins has hit out at what he described as “very extraordinary” remarks by former Irish Taoiseach John Bruton.

Mr Bruton said Mr Higgins was “wrong” not to attend the NI Centenary event, explaining to Good Morning Ulster: “If he had fulfilled his obligation under the Constitution, which is to take the advice of the Irish Government on this matter, they would have advised him that he ought to go.”

Mr Higgins told media in Rome: “With the greatest of respect to the former Prime minister, John Bruton is wrong in his interpretation of the constitution. I welcome all of the suggestions but I have to take exception, quite frankly, to people who have suggested I have broken the constitution.

“I find it a very extraordinary comment from the former prime minister.”

Current Taoiseach Micheal Martin said that he respects the president’s decision not to attend the centenary event.

Speaking in Cork yesterday, the Fianna Fail leader said: “I understand where the president is coming from.

“I think he has articulated and has given his reasons and we know that the president has given a lot of time to commemoration, and takes it very seriously.

“He is also very committed to reconciliation. We don’t need to question his bon fides in that respect at all, and people shouldn’t.

“I think he has made his decision now and as he said himself, we should move on from this.

“I think the relationship with the United Kingdom and Ireland has been transformed over the last 30 years and this will not harm it in any way.

“I know the president looks forward to working with the Queen, with the UK head of state into the future and will also work to continue to build relationships north and south. That’s where we are right now.”

Micheal Martin said the Government has not received an invitation to the event, but would consider attending if invited.

He also said he was not aware of the sequence of events nor the contact that would been made between the president’s office and the organisers.

“The president has to make that decision and it is at the discretion of the president to make that decision,” he added.

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