President Michael D Higgins' decision not to attend an event in Armagh is “hard to fathom”, according to the UUP leader.
However, Doug Beattie defended the President's past record of supporting reconciliation on the island.
The President’s decision to decline an invitation to a church service in Armagh commemorating the partition of Ireland and the foundation of Northern Ireland has dominated headlines in recent days.
President Higgins has suggested the event had become too politicised, and that the name of the event wasn't a 'neutral statement'.
The President’s decision has drawn criticism from the likes of the DUP and some commentators, although a new poll has suggested there’s overwhelming public support for his decision.
Speaking to On The Record, UUP’s Doug Beattie defended President Higgins’ record in commemorating often divisive chapters of Irish history.
He said: “I think the Irish President is absolutely up for reconciliation - I think he has shown that on many occasions before.
“Just last year, I commended him when he was giving the speech at Croke Park marking the events 100 years previously, when he actually mentioned the 13 people killed before those who were killed in Croke Park.
“That’s why this decision I think is disappointing and hard to fathom - it’s a real opportunity for reconciliation.”
He suggested the public’s support for the decision is likely down to President Higgins being “extremely popular”, as opposed to the decision itself.
He also accused Sinn Féin of opportunism in this matter - claiming they will always look for the opportunity to “stick the boot in”.
Mr Beattie stressed he won’t be "running around vilifying" President Higgins, as it's clear he has a strong record of supporting reconciliation.
However, he stressed he'd very much welcome the President or Irish Government representatives attending this particular event.
He said: “I think it would be of great value if the President of Ireland did attend this church service with the Queen.
"It's an historical event we are marking - nobody is asking anybody to celebrate it."
The UUP leader added that the event is “marking out hope for the future”, and people aren’t going to be tied down to a specific narrative by attending this church event.
He told Gavan: “I’m willing to stand with my nationalist neighbours and accept their interpretation, as long as they can stand with me and accept my interpretation.”