Irish president won’t mark Northern Ireland’s 100th birthday

DUBLIN — Irish President Michael D. Higgins says he won’t attend a religious ceremony alongside Queen Elizabeth II commemorating the foundation of Northern Ireland a century ago.

His decision has roiled opinion across the island, winning cheers from Irish republicans hostile to Ireland’s 1921 partition but irritating the north’s British unionists and some politicians in the south.

The planned October 21 ceremony at the Church of Ireland cathedral in Armagh, the ecclesiastical capital for both Catholics and Anglicans on the island, was intended to bring together church leaders and the heads of state of the U.K. and Ireland.

While the queen accepted her invite, Higgins declined — and initially offered no public explanation why.

During a visit to Rome to meet Pope Francis, Higgins told journalists he had rejected the invite because the event was not politically neutral — and also because the invitation had not used his correct office title.

“An invitation to a religious service had in fact become a political statement,” he said. “I was also referred to as the president of the Republic of Ireland. I am the president of Ireland.”

That distinction might seem word-splitting and petty, but it strikes at the heart of Ireland’s evolving political framework over the past century.

Most of Ireland won self-rule from Britain following a 1919-1921 war of independence. Partition of the island into an overwhelmingly Irish Catholic south and mostly British Protestant north had already happened.

The new Irish Free State was renamed simply “Ireland” in its 1937 constitution. But the top of that document defined the state as encompassing “the whole island,” including Northern Ireland, which it called part of “the national territory.”

Ireland left the British Commonwealth and declared itself a republic in 1948, after which it became common to use that word to distinguish independent Ireland from Northern Ireland.

As part of Northern Ireland’s Good Friday peace accord of 1998, Ireland agreed to remove the territorial claim from its constitution. But that document still separately considers the head of state to be president of Ireland — representing Irish people worldwide, not merely the republic.

For that reason, it struck a particular nationalist nerve when the event organizers called Higgins the president of, effectively, only part of Ireland. The elfin 80-year-old has held the largely ceremonial post since 2011 and has often invited northern unionists to summer parties at his opulent official residence in Dublin’s Phoenix Park.

Foreign Minister Simon Coveney, who took part Friday in a separate commemorative event in Belfast marking Northern Ireland’s centennial year, said his department “didn’t give any clear advice to the president” — nor should it have.

“He is the head of state. He’s entitled to make his own decisions on his own diary and the events that he attends,” Coveney said.

But one of the Armagh event organizers, Archbishop Eamon Martin, leader of the Catholic Church in Ireland, said Higgins’ refusal surprised him.

“It would have been very special if the president had been able to attend. It was a bit unexpected,” Martin said.

A former prime minister and EU ambassador to Washington, John Bruton, accused Higgins of needlessly undermining the Irish government’s commitment to reconciliation and compromise with unionists. His decision, Bruton said, “runs against the Good Friday agreement.”

At a follow-up press conference in Rome, Higgins rejected Bruton’s criticisms and said he wouldn’t reconsider his decision. Bruton issued his own follow-up statement insisting Higgins was still wrong.

Mary Lou McDonald, leader of the nationalist Sinn Féin party, lauded Higgins’ position. “The partition of Ireland was a catastrophe for our people and our country,” she said.

Unionist leaders complained that nationalists still were struggling to recognize the existence of a state created before the rest of Ireland exited the U.K. a century ago. They contrasted Higgins’ position with the queen’s 2011 visit to the Republic of Ireland, when she paid respect to Ireland’s rebel dead.

“Each time President Higgins speaks about his boycott of this event, the rationale for his snub becomes more bizarre, backward and offensive,” said Democratic Unionist Party lawmaker Peter Weir. “He should have been open and honest from day one.”

But Deirdre Heenan, social policy professor at Ulster University and a former adviser to the president, said the Armagh event “has been managed in a ham-fisted way.”

Heenan accused the Democratic Unionists of “jaw-dropping hypocrisy.” She noted that its leaders often have shunned all-Ireland events and ceremonies connected to important events in Irish nationalism, and currently were threatening to block joint meetings of the administrations in Belfast and Dublin mandated under terms of the Good Friday pact.



Source by [author_name]