PRESIDENT OF Ireland, Michael D Higgins, has offered an explanation into why he declined the invite to attend an event marking 100 years since the creation of Northern Ireland.
President Michael D Higgins had declined the invitation to the event in Armagh, due to take place at the end of October, which is being organised by the leaders of the island's two main Christian churches.
In a statement seen by RTÉ News, a spokesperson for President Higgins said that he is "not in a position" to attend the centenary event, and the organisers have been made aware of this.
He conveyed his best wishes to Britain's Queen Elizabeth and added that the President " has welcomed, and continues to welcome any opportunities to meet with her majesty and members of her family", having met her on multiple occasions previously.
The decision to decline the invitation drew criticism from some in the north, particularly DUP MLA Peter Weir, who asked if the president was "officially snubbing NI centenary events".
Now President Higgins has clarified why he will not be attending the event which marks 100 years since the partition of Ireland and the creation of Northern Ireland, which remained under British rule following Ireland's War of Independence.
Speaking to reporters in Rome, where he is attending a meeting of the ‘Arraiolos Group’ of EU Presidents, President Higgins said the event had been supposed to be a religious service but had become "a political statement".
"What began as a religious service or reconciliation is now the celebrating, the marking, I think is the word used, [of] the partition of Ireland and the creation of Northern Ireland.
"It’s a different thing."
He added that "the title" of the event is one his main reasons for deciding not to attend: according to The Irish Independent, the Archbishops Conference had earlier this week said that the event would be a reflection of "Christian commitment to peace, healing and reconciliation underpins Service of Reflection and Hope to mark the partition of Ireland and the formation of Northern Ireland."
The title of the event, particularly the reference to 'marking "the partition of Ireland", had been "troubling" him for a "long while".
"I am completely open to anyone in Northern Ireland of any Unionist tradition completely celebrating that in any way they like", he said, adding that "it's not the event itself" he has issue with but "in relation to which the event was titled".
President Higgins also took issue with how he was addressed in the invitation-- as the President of the Republic of Ireland.
"They keep referring to me as the President of the Republic of Ireland. I am the President of Ireland," he said.
He also responded to DUP MLA Peter Weir's accusation that he was 'joining Sinn Fein and the SDLP in boycotting Centenary events', and said that he is "not snubbing anyone".
He said he wasn't attending "because I don't agree with it, I am not part of anyone's boycott of any other events in Northern Ireland. I'm continuing with my own, and I respect everyone else's".
In 2016, as the Republic celebrated the centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising which sparked the War of Independence, President Higgins declined an invitation to an event in Northern Ireland marking the event as he did not want to be embroiled in "political controversy".
In Rome yesterday, similar to his reasons for not attending the 1916 event in the north, President Higgins said he must have a "discretion" for what events are "appropriate" for the President of Ireland to attend.
President Higgins also pointed out that he has attended multiple events in Northern Ireland, and has met Britain's Queen Elizabeth-- and pointed out that "DUP people who are criticising me now" often do not attend events in the north when he is present.
"It's a bit much now to be frank with you," he stated.