Taoiseach Micheál Martin has defended a decision by his Government to attend an event marking Northern Ireland’s centenary, which President Michael D Higgins turned down an invitation for.
Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney and Chief Whip Jack Chambers will represent the Government at the religious service in Co Armagh to mark the 100th anniversary of the establishment of Northern Ireland and the partition of the island.
President Higgins previously said he would not attend the event on the grounds that it is political in nature and commemorates the “centenary of the partition of Ireland”.
I don’t get the consistency of the Sinn Féin view point on this quite frankly
On Friday, Mr Martin told reporters that he was “surprised” by the stance taken by Sinn Féin, after the party's vice president Michelle O’Neill criticised the Government’s decision to send representatives to the event.
“Sinn Féin would have attended an event last September. The Presbyterian Church had an event of more or less the same title to mark the centenary of the establishment of Northern Ireland and partition,” he said.
“Declan Kearney, a senior Sinn Féin representative, attended, so I don’t get the consistency of the Sinn Féin view point on this quite frankly.
“I would just ask at this stage that people should not seek to exploit this situation for political gain, we need to move on in terms of working collectively together on this island in the spirit of reconciliation and joint endeavour into the future.”
Full support of President
The Taoiseach said that President Higgins, as Ireland's Head of State, “comes at these issues from a different perspective”.
“There is a difference there between the Head of State and the Government,” he told reporters in Belfast.
“In our statement last night we said the President’s decision was properly taken and consistent with views he had articulated earlier in that process leading up to the invitation.
“We fully support the President in that regard.
“The Government has then subsequently been invited to the event. We took on board the spirit in which that invitation was sent to us and we have decided to be represented at it, and we will just take it from there.”
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood meanwhile welcomed the move by the Irish Government to attend the event but emphasised to reporters in Belfast that his party does not “celebrate partition”.
“We’re going to that event because we want to end partition and it would be ridiculous of us to believe that we could convince enough people that we should end partition if we’re not even prepared to go and speak to those people, if we’re not even prepared to recognise the fact that other people have a difference of opinion than we do on partition,” he said.
Partition an 'absolute tragedy'
Mr Eastwood added that he is “of the firm view that the United Kingdom is coming to an end”, describing the partition of Ireland as an “absolute tragedy”.
Asked if he thought Mr Higgins was wrong to decline an invitation to the event, Mr Eastwood said: “Absolutely not, and at the time I was very clear in defending the President’s position.
“The President is in a different position to me, I am not the President of Ireland. He has a different set of circumstances to weigh up. It’s very clear partition is a deeply political event … therefore I understand completely and I defend the President completely in his decision.
“I think the President has the right to make his decision given he is the head of state, it’s not a political position, and the Government, I think, are right as well. We have to go to tough places, we have to engage with people we disagree with.”
Earlier on Friday, Sinn Féin's Michelle O’Neill said the Irish Government's attendance at the event was “the wrong call”.