Irish President Michael D. Higgins’ decision to decline an invitation to attend an October ecumenical religious service commemorating the centenary of North Ireland–an event Queen Elizabeth II is expected to attend–has set off a firestorm of criticism.
Bobby McDonagh, a former Irish ambassador to London, Brussels, and Rome, weighed the go/no go quandary for The Irish Times:
On the one hand, the president, as someone who has been and remains to the forefront in promoting reconciliation, could have decided to attend the event. He could have noted that the intention was to “mark” rather than to “celebrate” the controversial events of a hundred years ago. He could have attended the religious service in the spirit in which the church leaders who issued the invitation no doubt intended it, as a prayerful ceremony to reflect on past events that have led to a century of much pain and heartache on all sides.
On the other hand, the president will have been aware that partition remains a deeply controversial and contested issue across the island and that many in Northern Ireland regard him as their president. He will have understood that the distinction between “marking” and “celebrating” can be deliberately muddied and would have been, by some, in this instance. He may have considered that the wording of the invitation, even if it refers to acknowledging failures and hurts, did not fully capture the organizers’ intention of marking the full complexity of our history, including radically divergent views on partition. He was also aware of his obligation to avoid political controversy; indeed in 2016 he pulled out of an event in Belfast to mark the Easter Rising because it did not have cross-community support.
Higgins made a state visit to the United Kingdom in 2014, including a stop at Windsor Castle, three years after the monarch visited the Republic of Ireland. Nevertheless, Ulster unionists (who declined to attend the 2018 visit of Pope Francis to the republic) have characterized Higgins’ decision as a snub to the queen. It’s certainly a distraction from their sinking poll numbers and ongoing struggles with Brexit and COVID-19.
Higgins has also faced some criticism at home. He told the Times:
There is no question of any snub intended to anybody. I am not snubbing anyone and I am not part of anyone’s boycott of any other events in Northern Ireland. 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.
Leaders of the Roman Catholic Church, Church of Ireland, Presbyterian Church in Ireland, Methodist Church in Ireland, and the Irish Council of Churches have said they will attend the Oct. 21 event. I expect there will be further developments over the coming month.