Former Taoiseach John Bruton said he believes President Higgins is “wrong” not to attend a church centenary commemoration in Armagh next month.
t emerged earlier this week that Mr Higgins would not be at a centenary church commemoration of partition and the establishment of Northern Ireland scheduled for next month in Co Armagh.
Speaking to media in Rome, Mr Higgins said that he is not attending the event because he said it has become a “political statement”.
“I think he is wrong not to attend, and I think there is time for him to change his mind,” Mr Bruton said on Newstalk Breakfast today.
“Obviously it requires great strength of character to change one’s mind, but I think he should do so.
“And it is important to recognise that fact – the fact that Northern Ireland exists and is legitimate – was recognised by the Irish people when they voted in the referendum on the Good Friday Agreement.
“The Good Friday Agreement accepts that it is the present wish of the people of Northern Ireland that they remain in the United Kingdom until that view is changed.
“So in going to this event and recognising that Northern Ireland existed for the last hundred years, the President would simply be recognising something that the Irish people have recognised.”
The former Taoiseach said this is “one of the most important invitations he would have received as President.”
“It wasn’t an invitation to the opening of a credit union in Co Kerry,” he added.
“This was an invitation to attend an event which deals with a very difficult issue upon which policy is made by the Government.
“We can’t have two policies on Northern Ireland – one being made by the Government is Merrion Street, and another being made in the Phoenix Park.
“Reach out to the Unionist community, which we need to do, both over the Northern Ireland Protocol and also over the future of our country.”
Meanwhile, Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leader Jeffrey Donaldson said the island of Ireland has taken a “retrograde step” in its shared history.
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.”
The President is currently visiting Rome and will be meeting Pope Francis for the fourth time on Friday.