Government defends President Higgins' decision to avoid centenary ceremony in the North

ireland
Government Defends President Higgins' Decision To Avoid Centenary Ceremony In The North Government Defends President Higgins' Decision To Avoid Centenary Ceremony In The North
Green Party leader Eamon Ryan denied the Government had “snubbed” Michael D Higgins by sending their own representatives to the event. Photo: PA Images
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James Ward, PA

The Government has defended the decision of President Michael D Higgins not to attend a cross-community service to mark the centenary of the formation of the North.

The event, taking place at St Patrick’s Church of Ireland Cathedral in Armagh on Thursday, became the centre of a row last month after President Higgins declined an invitation to attend because he believed it was not politically neutral.

Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney and chief whip Jack Chambers were sent on behalf of the Government.

Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney with British prime minister Boris Johnson speaking with the Archbishop of Armagh Primate of All Ireland Eamon Martin during a service to mark the centenary of Northern Ireland at St Patrick’s Cathedral in Armagh (Liam McBurney/PA)

Speaking in the Dáil, Green Party leader Eamon Ryan defended the President’s position and denied that the Government had “snubbed” him by sending its own representatives to the event.

He said: “I’m absolutely certain that there’s no difference or no controversy with regard to the President’s decision.

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“The Government fully accepted and understood that his decision-making in this regard was absolutely proper.

“His role in this issue is not in any way being called into question, it never was from the very start of this becoming a controversial matter.”

He was responding to a question from Aontu leader Peadar Toibin during Leader’s Questions.

Mr Toibin said: “I believe that your Government today is snubbing the President of Ireland, by going against his decision and attending the partition commemoration ceremony.

“How can you square the circle? No matter what euphemisms or language you use in this situation, if the President was right not to attend the event due to its political nature, how is it that you think it is right for the Government to go?”

Mr Toibin was reprimanded by the Leas-Cheann Comhairle Catherine Connolly, who said it was a longstanding practice that the President not be drawn into any argument in the Dáil, and that the Government should not be asked to comment on him.

Mr Ryan said he was willing to proceed and answer the question, and said while the Government respected the President’s decision, it did not preclude them from sending their own representatives.

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“The Government, the various arms of the Oireachtas of our Constitution have different requirements and obligations and considerations,” he said.

Outside the service to mark the centenary of Northern Ireland at St Patrick’s Cathedral in Armagh (Liam McBurney/PA)

He added: “The Minister of Foreign Affairs is engaged on an ongoing basis in the North, and the Government felt it was absolutely appropriate and right for us, while absolutely acknowledging the President’s decision and his rightful approach in this regard, that didn’t preclude the Government sending a representative.”

The event, titled A Service of Reflection and Hope, was organised by the leaders of the main churches.

UK prime minister Boris Johnson, the UK's secretary of state for Northern Ireland Brandon Lewis, the North's First Minister Paul Givan, DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, UUP leader Doug Beattie, SDLP leader Colum Eastwood and Alliance leader Naomi Long also attended the service.

Britain's Queen Elizabeth II had been set to attend but was unable to travel after she fell ill.

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