Unionists urge Michael D Higgins to clarify if he will attend NI Centenary service with Queen

Unionists have urged Irish President Michael D Higgins to clarify if he intends to “snub” a major event next month marking the centenary of Northern Ireland.

By Mark Rainey
Wednesday, 15th September 2021, 6:30 pm
Updated Wednesday, 15th September 2021, 10:12 pm
President Michael D Higgins
President Michael D Higgins

The Queen is expected to join church and civic leaders at the special service in Saint Patrick’s Church of Ireland Cathedral, Armagh on October 21.

The Irish head of state is reported to have declined an invitation to attend.

Catholic Archbishop Eamon Martin, is supporting the initiative – describing the centenary as an “opportunity for greater mutual understanding,” and “for opportunities to build further reconciliation”.

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DUP MLA Peter Weir said he has written to Mr Higgins, asking if his office is “joining the SDLP and Sinn Fein in boycotting any events which mark Northern Ireland centenary”.

Mr Weir said: “If President Higgins is officially snubbing NI centenary events, I have urged him to think again. This island has a been living through a decade of centenary milestones. At every stage unionism has engaged positively and sought to use such events to advance reconciliation and peace.”

UUP MLA Mike Nesbitt has also called for clarity, saying a refusal to attend would be “surprising and uncharacteristic”.

Mr Higgins is in Rome this week on his first trip abroad since the start of the Covid pandemic.

Speaking to the Irish Catholic publication earlier this year, Archbishop Martin said: “I would like to see the 2021 centenary as an opportunity for greater mutual understanding, for opportunities to build further reconciliation and peace.

“I am somewhat disappointed that many of our nationalist and republican political leaders have dismissed the centenary of 2021 altogether because for me I think it’s really important to seize it as a moment to reflect on where we’ve come from.”

According to a report in the Irish Times, a spokesman for Mr Higgins said the president is “not in a position to attend the ceremony you mention, and this has been communicated to the organisers”.

The spokesman did not provide a reason for declining the invitation, but added: “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.”

In a joint statement, the Catholic, Church of Ireland, Presbyterian and Methodist church leaders said: “A Service of Reflection and Hope to mark the centenaries of the partition of Ireland and the formation of Northern Ireland will take place in Saint Patrick’s Church of Ireland Cathedral, Armagh, on Thursday, 21 October 2021.”

However, the leaders declined to confirm that Mr Higgins will not be in attendance.

Mr Weir said: “It is narrow minded and deeply disappointing that Sinn Fein and the SDLP have vetoed almost every publicly funded initiative to mark Northern Ireland’s centenary.

“They even vetoed the placement of a centenary stone in Parliament Buildings even though it was being gifted by unionist MLAs.”

He added: “For such high office in the Republic of Ireland to join Sinn Fein and the SDLP in boycotting centenary events speaks volumes about that country’s commitment to reconciliation and progress.”

Mr Nesbitt said: “The news that President Michael D Higgins has declined an invitation to attend a service at Armagh Cathedral alongside Her Majesty The Queen to mark the Centenary of Northern Ireland, is surprising and uncharacteristic from someone who has shown a consistent willingness to reach out and promote reconciliation.

“The reciprocal State visits were a high watermark in Anglo Irish relations and until we know the reason why he is ‘not in a position to attend’ we cannot be critical.”

Mr Nesbitt went on to say: “Whether the President of Ireland attends or not should not detract from the fact Her Majesty the Queen will be in Northern Ireland marking our centenary at a church service”.

Plans for an Irish Government service to mark 100 years since the disbandment of the Royal Irish Constabulary were abandoned last year after a fierce political backlash.