By David Young, PA
Unionists have questioned why President Michael D Higgins has declined an invitation to attend a church service alongside Britain’s queen to mark Northern Ireland’s centenary.
The DUP and Ulster Unionists have asked for clarity after it emerged that the Irish President would not be present at the event in Armagh next month.
It is understood Queen Elizabeth has also been invited to the service, which is a focal point of a programme of events in 2021 to mark 100 years since the island of Ireland was partitioned.
A spokesperson for Mr Higgins told The Irish Times: “The President is not in a position to attend the ceremony you mention, and this has been communicated to the organisers.”
They did not say why he would not attend.
The spokesperson continued: “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.”
The creation of Northern Ireland in 1921 remains highly divisive a century on, and unionists and nationalists have contrasting views on the anniversary.
Nationalist politicians in Northern Ireland have not been participating in events organised by the UK government to mark the centenary.
DUP MLA Peter Weir has written to Mr Higgins asking if he was engaging in a similar “boycott”.
“The Republic of Ireland’s president has turned down an invitation to be a guest at a service in Armagh marking the centenary of Northern Ireland,” he said.
“I have written to the Irish president asking if his office is officially snubbing all events marking this milestone in the decade of centenaries.
“If President Higgins is officially snubbing NI Centenary events, I have urged him to think again. This island has 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.
It is narrow-minded and deeply disappointing that Sinn Féin and the SDLP have vetoed almost every publicly funded initiative
“It is narrow-minded and deeply disappointing that Sinn Féin 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.
“For such high office in the Republic of Ireland to join Sinn Féin and the SDLP in boycotting centenary events speaks volumes about that country’s commitment to reconciliation and progress.”
Ulster Unionist Mike Nesbitt said the move by Mr Higgins was “uncharacteristic”.
“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,” he said.
“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.
“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 which will see both Catholic and Church of Ireland Primates participate in an event entirely consistent with the Ulster Unionist vision of a Union of People.”