DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson described the decision as a “retrograde step,” while a group of independent senators in the Republic have expressed “deep concern” that the refusal “may be misinterpreted”.
Reports that Mr Higgins has declined the invitation began circulating on Wednesday, however, by Thursday evening he had not yet explained the reason for the decision.
Sir Jeffrey said he has written to President Higgins to seek a reason for his decision not to attend the event at which the Queen is expected to be present.
The DUP leader said many people would regard the step as “a snub,” while a number of other unionists and the Alliance Party have asked Mr Higgins to reconsider.
The ‘Service of Reflection and Hope’ on October 21 – organised by the leaders of the Catholic Church, the Church of Ireland, the Presbyterian Church and the Methodist Church – is a focal point of a programme of events to mark 100 years since the island of Ireland was partitioned. It is taking place at Saint Patrick’s Church of Ireland Cathedral.
A spokesperson for the Irish president said he was “not in a position to attend”, but did not explain why.
Addressing the media at Stormont, Sir Jeffrey said: “I think it’s very unfortunate that for a service that the focus of which is hope and reconciliation that the head of state of our neighbouring country feels that he is unable to attend.
“We don’t know the reasons why that is the case. However, given that the president of the Republic takes advice from the Irish Government on such matters, one could conclude that perhaps there is some politics in all of this.
“If that is the case, I think it is most unfortunate, particularly given the progress that we have made during the period of the World War One centenary when we all worked hard, including President Higgins, to take an approach which was respectful of our shared history.”
Asked if the Irish president’s move was a snub, Sir Jeffrey said: “Without knowing the reasons for his decision not to attend, it is difficult to say.
“I think it would have been better if we had clarity on the reasons why and in the absence of such an explanation it is difficult not to conclude that there is politics at play here and many will see that as a snub”.
He added: “We have written to President Higgins seeking an explanation as to why he is unable to attend the church service. Minister (Simon) Coveney will be here later in the week. Perhaps he will be able to offer some more detail why it is the case that the Irish president is not able to attend the service in Armagh. I have encouraged President Higgins to... think again about this decision.”
Speaking to the Nolan Show earlier on Thursday, Sir Jeffrey said: “I think it is a retrograde step and takes us backwards when the President of the Republic of Ireland cannot attend a service of this nature which is being called by the churches.”
A spokesperson for the Irish president said: “The President is not in a position to attend the ceremony you mention, and this has been communicated to the organisers.
“The President, through his office, has already conveyed his good wishes to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. The President has welcomed, and continues to welcome any opportunities to meet with Her Majesty and members of her family.”
Alliance Party MP Stephen Farry said he hoped President Higgins would reconsider his position.
“This event is very much in keeping with the reconciliation efforts of successive Irish presidents and the Queen over recent years, and the inclusive approach to marking the decade of centenaries,” he said.
In the Republic, the six independent senators who signed the letter to President Higgins said: “We feel... that your attendance at the event, if possible, would significantly advance the cause of reconciliation and dispel any suggestion of unnecessary political division on this island.”
In contrast to the pressure mounting for Mr Higgins to reconsider, hundreds of republicans on social media platforms have argued strongly against the calls for a rethink.
Former Republican Sinn Fein president Des Dalton tweeted: “To expect Michael D Higgins to attend an event celebrating the centenary of the enforced partition of Ireland is akin to asking Palestinians to celebrate Nakba and the foundation of the state of Israel”.
• Some nationalist MLAs appeared divided on the merits of the four main church leaders’ initiative to mark the centenary of Northern Ireland.
While SDLP MLA Matthew O’Toole said he would personally “not celebrate partition,” his party colleague Sinead Bradley said she hopes Irish President Michael D Higgins will accept the invitation to the special event in Armagh.
Mr O’Toole declined to comment directly on reports that Mr Higgins has turned down the invitation, however, he told the BBC’s Talkback show that it is “wrong” for people to “rush to judgement” on the reasons for what some have branded a “snub” to the church leaders.
“People are willing to rush to judgement on people’s handling of individual events. I think that is wrong,” he said.
“I’m not going to celebrate partition and sometimes I think the phrasing of this is a bit unfortunate.
“It sort of implies that people who don’t think that Ireland should have been partitioned, whatever about the Northern Ireland we live in now – which is transformed since 1998... is sour, surly nationalists getting in the way”.
However, South Down MLA Ms Bradley she would like to see Mr Higgins attend the ‘Service of Reflection and Hope’.
In a Twitter message, she said: “As a strong supporter of @PresidentIRL I am unaware of his reason for not attending Armagh, but if it is at all possible for him to be there, I hope he can. Uniting our people for a truly shared future.
“Many narratives & views regarding 100 year division of our Island. As an Irish Republican mine are clear. However ‘The Century’ will be celebrated by others. In 2021 it’s critical leaders seek opportunities to acknowledge difference, diffuse intolerance & promote a healthy shared future.”
Ms Bradley added: “And before the trolls jump in, it’s not about endorsing or celebrating. It’s all about ensuring representation of a different & deeply held view. My desire to see our island reunified should threaten nobody, likewise I will not feel threatened by opposing views.”
Mid-Ulster SDLP councillor Malachy Quinn tweeted: “Alliance and other unionist parties demanding that the Michael D Higgins attend an event to mark partition. This is despite the fact that all those parties refused to attend an event in Dublin to mark 1916. Where was their talk of peace & reconciliation then?”
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