President Michael D Higgins has defended his decision to decline an invitation to a religious service in Northern Ireland next month.
Speaking in Rome during a four-day official visit to the Italian capital, President Higgins said his 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”.
President Higgins strongly denied any suggestion of a snub on Queen Elizabeth and that he declined on the grounds that it is political in nature and commemorates the "centenary of the partition in Ireland", making 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.”
In a reference to Queen Elizabeth, he said: “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.”
The president also called DUP criticism of his decision not to attend 'a bit much'
“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.
The controversy has threatened to overshadow President Higgins’s audience with Pope Francis in the Vatican on Friday morning as he said he would not be revisiting the decision despite further calls for the President to reconsider.
DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson said he had written to Mr Higgins seeking an explanation and had “encouraged President Higgins to change his mind”. He also said it was “difficult not to conclude that there is politics at play here”.
However, SDLP leader Colum Eastwood defended Mr Higgins and his record on reconciliation, saying that people “should not read too much into this” and should “take him at his word when he says he can’t be there”.
Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney is due to attend an event marking the centenary of the creation of Northern Ireland later on Friday.
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