MICHAEL D HIGGINS’ decision not to attend a centenary church service in Armagh next month has “set back north-south relations” in Ireland, DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson has claimed.
The prayer service, which the Queen is expected to attend, has been organised by the four main churches in Northern Ireland to mark the centenary of the creation of Northern Ireland.
Higgins said last week that he declined his invitation because he believed it was not politically neutral and because he had concerns about the title of the event.
Donaldson has renewed his criticism of the president following a joint statement by the church leaders which set out their reasons for organising the event.
The leaders of the Church of Ireland, Catholic, Presbyterian and Methodist churches said the service was to “explore the opportunity to deepen the work of reconciliation in a context of respectful dialogue”.
Presbyterian Church Moderator Dr David Bruce told the BBC that church leaders had not received communication from Mr Higgins when they sent the invite.
He added: “We are not saying that Michael D Higgins, the president, did not raise these issues. We are saying that he didn’t raise them with us.”
Donaldson said the church leaders’ statement showed that there was “no known diplomatic attempt” to alter anything about the event.
He added: “The rejection of this event by the Irish head of state signals to unionists that the presidential office does not respect Northern Ireland as an entity and has little or no interest in a shared future with unionism.
“Such a stance demonstrates how far the office under Michael D Higgins has drifted from the shared future principles it once espoused. This disrespect for the existence of Northern Ireland indicates that Michael D Higgins’ office is really a united Ireland champion rather than a leader of reconciliation.”
The DUP leader continued: “This saga has been a sad reflection on many years of outreach by unionists like me and others. I have travelled the length and breadth of the island showing respect and explaining unionism.
“I have stood in gardens of remembrance with my head bowed to show respect for people who were opponents of the Union. But I recognised that to take those steps was important to heal division.
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“Rather than reciprocate on this occasion, Michael D Higgins has not only devalued and undermined such steps, but he has set back north-south relations to the detriment of the office which he holds.”
Last week, Higgins said his decision to decline the invitation to the service had come after six months of consideration.
He said: “That’s the beginning, so it isn’t a sudden decision, the decision is the outcome of a consideration.”
He also challenged the DUP criticism of his decision.
“It’s a bit much, to be frank with you. I have gone up to Northern Ireland to take part in events,” he said.
“There often has not been a great deal of traffic down from the DUP people who are criticising me now.”