NI centenary ‘service of reflection’ is only political because Higgins made it so: Senator

A member of the Irish Senate has blamed Michael D Higgins for the controversy which has engulfed an upcoming religious service marking Northern Ireland’s centenary.

Monday, 20th September 2021, 1:47 pm
Michael D Higgins at an Easter Rising commemoration in 2016

Mr Higgins, who has held the post of Irish president for the past 10 years, has declined to attend the cross-community event in Armagh at the end of October.

He was invited by a body called the Church Leader Group, which includes top Catholic and Protestant clergy.

When it came to his rejection of the invitation, Mr Higgins had initially indicated that he was annoyed over being referred to as the “President of the Republic of Ireland” instead of by his official title, “President of Ireland”.

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However, a copy of the invitation has since surfaced, and it refers to him clearly – and twice – as the president of Ireland.

The service was not billed as a celebration, but rather as “a service of reflection and hope to mark the centenary of the partition of Ireland and the formation of Northern Ireland”.

The Queen is expected to attend, and Mr Higgins’ refusal to take part has been interpreted by some as a snub to her – and to unionists at large.

Then late last week, Mr Higgins declared that what had started out as “an invitation to a religious service had in fact become a political statement”.

Speaking to RTE yesterday, Gerard Craughwell, a Galway man and former Royal Irish Ranger who currently sits as an independent member of the Irish Seanad (the upper house of parliament) said he had spoken to a number of unionists, and “there’s a deep sense of disappointment”.

The affair “has set things back” in terms of unionist-nationalist relations, he said, adding: “It turned into a political issue because of the statement made by the president.

“There are two words in the title – reflection and hope.

“And any of us sitting in this country today, north or south, would want to reflect on the history of this country with the hopes we might have for the future of a new Ireland, an Ireland that would embrace all traditions.

“That’s where I feel we’ve scored an own goal on this one ...

“I think we’ve missed an opportunity to extend the hand of friendship to the more moderate unionists – and we have actually enraged the more radical unionists.”

The Irish Mail on Sunday yesterday carried the results of a poll which it had commissioned, saying that 81% of respondents thought Mr Higgins “is right not to go north”.

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