The Government ‘completely understands and respects’ the President’s decision not to attend the partition centenary in Northern Ireland – but feels it is appropriate to send the Foreign Affairs Minister.
Cabinet last night agreed to send Simon Coveney and Government Chief Whip Jack Chambers to the event at a church in Armagh.
President Michael D Higgins has declined an invitation to the event noting that it had become politicised and warning that it would be inappropriate for the head of State to attend an event that commemorates partition.
The invitation is to a “service of reflection and hope to mark the centenary of the partition of Ireland and the formation of Northern Ireland”.
Britain's Queen Elizabeth is due to attend the event and unionists in the North have claimed President Higgins’ decision was a snub to the UK crown – a charge the president has strongly rejected.
On Newstalk Breakfast this morning, Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe defended the Government’s decision to attend.
“We believe with the way we will need to think about the future of this island in the coming years, with the conversations we will have to have, I believe it is appropriate that the Government be represented at this event,” he said. “But I completely understand and completely respect the decision that the president made.”
He said the President has a right to make his own decisions on what events to attend.
“He is the head of our State and from all the years I have seen him hold that presidency and the way I have seen him make decisions in relation to it, he is a deeply thoughtful and deeply reflective president and I fully respect and understand why he made that decision,” he said.
“The Government knows and we understand that there are many, many important political debates coming up regarding the future of this island and we believe it is important the Government be represented at this event.”
"Absolutely understand and respect"
He said the Government has to “respect the independence of the Presidency.”
“We understand that, as head of State, he has particular priorities and a framework against which he needs to view these decisions,” he said.
“He did that I absolutely understand and respect why but, as I said, it is, we believe, appropriate that the Government be represented in the way that it is.”
In a statement last night, the Government said its role in attending the event is “clearly distinct from that of the President".
"Cognisant of that important distinction, and in recognition also of the spirit and intentions of the church leaders in organising the event, the Government has decided that it will be represented at the event by the Minister for Foreign Affairs and by the Government Chief Whip," it said.
President Higgins consulted with the Government before announcing his decision however, the Department of Foreign Affairs did not offer him “any clear advice” on what to do.