Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leader Jeffrey Donaldson said the island of Ireland has taken a “retrograde step” in its shared history after President Michael D Higgins said he won’t be attending a church centenary commemoration in Armagh next month.
The centenary mass will commemorate the partition and the establishment of Northern Ireland, and President Higgins told media in Rome yesterday he will not be attending because the “religious event” has become a “political statement”.
Speaking to RTÉ Radio One’s Morning Ireland today, Mr Donaldson said: “It is regrettable that the head of state for the Republic of Ireland feels that he cannot attend this service because it’s not about politics, it’s actually about hope and reconciliation.
“We are not asking President Higgins, and it’s not my invitation, but, the churches aren’t asking President Higgins to attend some kind of reenactment event or some kind of political event, it is a church service, and actually Arlene Foster attended a church service for a similar purpose in Dublin at the time of the centenary of the Easter Rising.”
The DUP leader added that when he chaired The Centenary Committee in Northern Ireland he “made an effort to travel to Dublin and other places as part of that centenary.”
He added: “And I think we made real progress together in recognising our shared history and I think it is a retrograde step that we haven’t continued with that in respect of attendance [of President Higgins] at this particular service.”
Mr Donaldson said in order to build a shared future on the island “then surely a starting point must be that we recognise our shared history.”
He added: “I’m not asking President Higgins, nor are the church leaders, to do anything other than mark an event, a moment in history that helped to shape and define both parts of this island over the last 100 years.
“We are not asking him to become a Unionist.
“We hear a lot of words about respecting and recognising Unionism but when it comes to stepping up on the mark on this I’m afraid that hasn’t happened.”
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