The comments from Rev David Bruce appear to challenge comments from Michael D Higgins, who has gone on record to say he had raised concerns as early as March or April about the neutrality of the reconciliation service, planned for next month by the four largest Irish churches.
The four churches had titled the event: ‘A service of reflection and hope to mark the centenaries of the partition of Ireland and the formation of Northern Ireland’. Mr Higgins and the Queen were among many dignitaries invited, but a political storm ensued when Mr Higgins declined the invitation, claiming he had raised concerns about the title as far back as March.
But Rev Bruce said that the church leaders received no word from him to that effect.
“That is correct,” Dr Bruce told the BBC after releasing a detailed statement from the clerics. “We are not saying that Michael D Higgins the President did not raise these issues but we are saying that he didn’t raise them with us.”
Asked if there had been a breakdown in communications involving the Northern Ireland Office and the Irish Government, who had both also been involved in shaping the event, he replied: “We did explore the details of the service not only its title but its content and its purpose with officials and did so from an early stage and the signals that we received back both from London and from Dublin were positive and warm.”
Dr Bruce said he was speaking out now “really for clarity”.
“We have been aware of the very extensive public commentary that there has been about this and probably also in the background a set of misunderstandings and we simply wanted - for clarity’s sake - to line out why the church leaders have taken the view that they have as a group.”
Asked if he realised it would be difficult for Mr Higgins to attend an event marking partition, Rev Bruce replied: “The title of the service was agreed by us as a church leader’s group having consulted very carefully with both officials within the Northern Ireland Office and in Dublin through the Department of Foriegn Affairs and we had no feedback suggesting that this was going to be problematic.”
He said Mr Higgins was “perfectly entitled” to make his decision and that other representatives are being invited. He added: “We need to maximise the ways in which we can differ well”.
DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said the joint statement from church leaders about the cross-community service shines a light on “how far Michael D Higgins has drifted” from shared future principles once espoused by his office. He said the clerics’ statement demonstrates that “the Presidential office and titles were respected” and there was “no known diplomatic attempt to alter anything... Just a flat refusal to attend”.
This signals, he said, the presidential office “does not respect Northern Ireland as an entity and has little or no interest in a shared future with unionism”.
Mr Higgins was invited to respond to the clerics and Mr Donaldson but declined to do so.
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