23 September 2021, The Tablet

Higgins defends decision to stay away from centenary service

Higgins defends decision to stay away from centenary service

Pope Francis meets Michael Higgins, President of Ireland, at the Vatican.
Independent Photo Agency Srl / Alamy

President Michael D Higgins’s fourth meeting with Pope Francis last Friday was overshadowed by a row in Ireland over his decision not to attend a church service in Armagh to mark the centenaries of the partition of the island of Ireland and the creation of Northern Ireland. 

In the Vatican, the pontiff and the Irish head of state discussed migration, climate change, global inequality as well as the coronavirus pandemic. 

Pope Francis paid tribute to Mr Higgins. “Today I did not just meet a man, a President, I met a wise man of today. I thank God that Ireland has such a wise man as its head [of State],” he said. 

However, in Northern Ireland, members of the Democratic Unionists (DUP) expressed anger at President Higgins’ decision to turn down the invitation to attend the Service of Reflection and Hope to mark the centenary of the partition of Ireland and the formation of Northern Ireland’ in the Church of Ireland Cathedral in Armagh in October, which Queen Elizabeth is due to attend. 

The invitation was issued by the leaders of the Church of Ireland, Roman Catholic, Presbyterian and Methodist Churches as well as the Irish Council of Churches. 

The service will take place in Saint Patrick’s Church of Ireland Cathedral, Armagh, on Thursday, 21 October 2021.

President Higgins outlined his reasons for declining the invitation. He said that what had started out as an invitation to a religious event had turned into a political statement.

Partition divided the island of Ireland in 1921 and established a sectarian state in the six counties that comprise Northern Ireland, in which Catholics were discriminated against for decades in areas such as housing, employment, policing and education. For nationalists/Catholics partition and the foundation of Northern Ireland is not something to be celebrated. 

Speaking to RTE Radio’s This Week programme on Sunday, Archbishop Eamon Martin said the service at St Patrick’s Cathedral in Armagh “was never and is not a celebration” but “a moment of acknowledgment, taking account of the fact that there are very different narratives out there about 1921”.

“We realise that anything connected with partition is in danger of being interpreted in a polarised manner,” he said.  

Archbishop Martin said the Church Leaders Group, who issued the invitation, were unaware that there was an issue to do with the title of the event. 

The leader of Church of Ireland, Archbishop John McDowell, also spoke to RTE’s This Week about the row and said the intention of the service was “to create spaces where people can address one another with respect even on very, very difficult subjects”. 

He said the church leaders “absolutely respect President Higgins’ decision and we know that he will not have made it lightly – that he will have made it conscientiously”.

He said they were very keen to have President Higgins because he is someone “who over a lifetime has committed himself to peace-making, to reconciliation”.

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