The President of Ireland, Michael D Higgins, has hit out at those who have insisted he attend an event to publicly celebrate the partition of Ireland.
The event in County Armagh is one of several to mark 100 years since partition, a period celebrated by unionists as marking the creation of ‘Northern Ireland’ but recalled with horror by the majority of the Irish people.
Speaking in Rome during a four-day official visit to the Italian capital, President Higgins said his main problem was with the title of the event, which it was stated would “mark the centenaries of the partition of Ireland and the formation of Northern Ireland”. He said the title was politicised and made it inappropriate for him as head of State to attend the event.
“What [had started out as] 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.”
He said there was no question of any snub intended to Queen Elizabeth of England: “I wish their service well but they understand that I have the right to exercise a discretion as to what I think is appropriate for my attendance.”
In response to unionist politicians who expressed their outrage, he replied: “It’s a bit much, to be frank with you. I have gone up to Northern Ireland to take part in events.
“There often has not been a great deal of traffic down from the DUP people who are criticising me now,” he added.
And despite being among those unionists who condemned events held to mark the 1916 Rising five years ago, DUP MP Gregory Campbell had said he was “bewildered” at the situation.
“It would be, I would have thought, a duty incumbent upon the head of State in the Irish Republic [to attend the event]”, he said.
Unionists in the south of Ireland were also upset by the President’s decision. Former Fine Gael Taoiseach John Bruton claimed that the President was in breach of the Constitution for failing to seek the government’s approval.
That suggestion was quickly rejected by a range of constitutional lawyers and legal experts. The President himself said he found “extraordinary” that such a comment would come from a member of the Council of State, the body which is supposed to provide advise to the President.
In a tweet on Friday afternoon, Sinn Féin’s Mary Lou McDonald wrote that the partition of Ireland was “a catastrophe for our people”.
“The partition of Ireland costs us to this day, holds us back, divides us. Uachtarán na hÉireann [the President of Ireland] has made clear his decision not to attend a commemorative event. His decision is the correct one.”
Her comment marked a change of tone from Sinn Féin’s usual support for British royal events in Ireland and rankled with unionists, some of whom claimed that “parity of esteem” from Sinn Féin for their community was over.
DUP Councillor Dale Pankhurst asked if Sinn Féin are “really committed” to peace and reconciliation.
But Aontú leader Peadar Tóibín said “there isn’t a president in the world” that would attend an event celebrating the partition of his own country.
Deputy Tóibín said President Higgins had “no choice” but to refuse the invitation.
“It just wouldn’t happen anywhere and I think it is a quirk of the Irish nation that we actually have these conversations – it is just so illogical.
“The partition of Ireland was a disaster. Partition wasn’t a victimless action. It set in train decades of second-class citizenship for Catholics and nationalists in the North. It institutionalised discrimination during that time. It sundered thousands of townlands and communities across the northern half of this country and it significantly arrested the social and economic development of Ireland for years and years and years.”
He said for a president to attend an event that “gives validity or suggests that partition was a positive action” wouldn’t happen anywhere else and shouldn’t happen here.
“Partition has been one of the biggest disasters that has affected this country. Outside of the famine, I can’t think of anything that has had a more detrimental effect on Ireland and while some people on this island obviously support partition, it doesn’t mean we have to have a uniform view on it.
“We have to accept these differences but for the President of this country to attend, validate and even commemorate such an event would do an injustice to all of the wrongs that have been done under the system of partition in Ireland north and south.”