Problems with the centennial service arose in March, but were not resolved


No matter how many times you join the dots of what is publicly known about the church service “to mark the centenary of the partition of Ireland and the creation of Northern Ireland” it is impossible to have a picture full of how, or when, it all fell into crisis.

What is known is that the first serious warnings about interfaith church service in Armagh becoming a “political declaration” came in early March of this year.

These warnings were not picked up or ignored, or there was a fundamental and seismic communications failure. The resulting problem that emerged was never addressed.

This was not addressed when the invitations were sent in May to President Michael D Higgins and Queen Elizabeth, or, again, when the President put another event on his calendar in early September.

At that point, his decision was a done deal, but key people elsewhere did not know.

Surprisingly, it emerged over the past week that the leaders of the four major Christian churches on this island were completely unaware that there was an issue with the president’s presence until the Irish Times began reporting on it. the question on September 14.

The key dates are the days leading up to St. Patrick’s Day, March 17. This created a fault line that finally erupted six months later.

The group of Church leaders had decided before the New Year that it would mark the 1921 centenary in some way, but outside of the political realm. During preliminary discussions, she had contacted both the office of the president and that of the queen.

On March 12, the Northern Ireland office released a calendar of all the centenary events it had organized for the year. The religious service was included in the calendar.


For it to be part of the official British government program was a problem. Inclusion was spotted by the president.

“He had seen a statement from the Northern Ireland office on March 12 that included the suggested event in a broader context that was political,” the president’s spokesperson said this week.

“The president understood that this would concern the organizers and his office was in contact. “

Church leaders acted quickly. The head of the Catholic Church in Ireland, Archbishop Eamon Martin, said last Sunday that as soon as they heard about it, they responded.

“There was a bump in the road before St. Patrick’s Day when our event entered a list of events that were not of a similar nature,” he told RTÉ.

“I know there were officials in Dublin who were very upset.

“Even before they communicated this to us, we said our event was completely different and was not of that nature. [We] got it back on track, ”he said.

But was it back on track or had it already derailed?

Because the President had another problem. That was the title. It was mentioned in the joint statement released by church leaders on St. Patrick’s Day when they referred to the “centenary of the partition of Ireland, the creation of Northern Ireland”.

In interviews during his trip to Rome last week, the president said the title had “troubled” him since March and that this view had been made clear in meetings involving officials in early March.

“In the week leading up to St. Patrick’s Day, I addressed these words and said if these words and this suggested title stay, I may have to wish you good luck,” he said. declared.

The inclusion of the reference to the score was problematic. This gave rise to an irony. The reference to “partition” came from the side of the Catholic Church, not from any other church.

It was included to recognize the nationalist perspective on what happened 100 years ago, in other words the meaning of a split of a country rather than the establishment of one.


But “partition” is a problematic word south of the border. The president raised the issue of coercion during the 1921 treaty negotiations which led to the de facto split. He also asked if 1925, and not 1921, might be a more suitable year. From this point of view, he had an ally in the person of Professor Diarmuid Ferriter, who called the title naïve.

The paradox underlying all of this is obvious. The service was specifically organized to be completely non-political. The President saw the title as making him politicized and wanted it changed if he was to attend.

Neither side wanted it to be political. But, politically, it has now warmed up, with consequences that could be lasting. Unfortunately, the reaction also highlighted the polarization that the organizers had worked so hard to avoid.

It was the heart of the crisis. President Higgins had raised his objection, but church leaders were completely ignoring it. Dr Martin said the first time he heard about it it was the Irish Times which reported it in mid-September. Speaking on the BBC’s Good Morning Ulster on Friday morning, Presbyterian moderator Dr David Bruce was more explicit. When asked to confirm whether the President’s point of view had not actually been conveyed to the Church leadership group in March or later, he replied, “That is correct. We’re not saying the chair didn’t raise the issues, but we’re saying he didn’t raise them with us.

This raises many questions. Who was the president’s point of view communicated to? Who was involved? Why did the message not reach the organizers? What involvement, if any, has the Ministry of Foreign Affairs had?

The group of church leaders continued to organize as if the paths had not diverged. Dr Bruce also revealed on Friday that the Foreign Office had at no time raised any sign of the title.

“The title of the service was agreed upon by us as a group of church leaders, after very careful consultation with those in charge of the office in Northern Ireland and in Dublin through the Foreign Office. We had no feedback suggesting this was going to be problematic. “


This suggests that the department was unaware that the president had an issue with the title, or, if he was aware, did not communicate its reservations to the organizers. The ministry said this week that it “will not comment on the [matter] right now.”

It is known from public comments that there has been contact between the President’s office and Buckingham Palace. The organizers also had “a back and forth” with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The Reverend Trevor Gribben, general secretary of the Presbyterian Church of Ireland, and Reverend Dr Heather Morris, secretary of the Methodist Conference, said the invitation was sent on May 20.

When John Bruton intervened last week to suggest that Mr Higgins had not fulfilled his constitutional obligations to take advice from the government, Mr Coveney stepped in to say there had been contact.

His comments raised more questions than answers. “We gave a perspective on this,” Mr. Coveney said. “It wasn’t formal advice. As I said before, the president made up his own mind on this.

When asked if the ministry told him he should not attend, the minister replied, “No. “

This argument is academic. The days of the Irish President endorsing the government of the day on all issues are long gone. Until 1990, the role of the president was largely ceremonial and conformist, almost as circumscribed as that of the trainee priest in Séamus Heaney’s poem, Station Island: “Condemned to the decent thing.” Visit of the neighbors. Drink tea and rent the homemade bread.

That changed during Mary Robinson’s tenure when she overcame Charles Haughey’s objections and delivered the Dimbleby lecture in London. Today, as Professor Deirdre Heenan of the University of Ulster, a former member of the Council of State noted last week, President Higgins is very independent of mind in defining his role and responsibilities. obligations.

Die was cast

Now the die was cast. In early September, the Statistical and Social Survey Society of Ireland was invited to Áras for an event on the economics of sustainability on October 21, the same day as the church service.

President Higgins’ decision was final at this point. No one at Foreign Affairs or the Taoiseach Ministry was ready to say when they found out the invitation had been turned down. Two ministers, in unrelated portfolios, say it was never discussed at cabinet level; the first they learned was Arthur Beesley’s report in The Irish Times on September 15.

The president’s spokesperson told the Irish Times that Mr Higgins had responded to the invitation and declined it. Although no one has officially confirmed it, given the surprise of church leaders at the turn of events, it can be assumed that the Áras letter was sent around the time that the Irish Times investigated.

In a statement on Monday, the joint secretariat of the Church Leaders’ Group put it blissfully: “Last week President Higgins himself told the media that he had responded and declined the invitation. We can confirm this is correct.

Invitations were sent to others, including the Irish government, on Friday. This will present a puzzle for the Taoiseach Micheál Martin. Many of his own TDs and party members fully agree with President Higgins’ position. If he were to go himself, it could send a certain message about his own attachment to a core party value and put his point of view at odds with that of the president. If not him, who? It would have to be someone senior enough to reflect the status of the event. This makes it more likely that the minister is on the side of Fine Gael.

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