Sinn Féin says it will not be part of any all-party delegation to a religious service in Armagh commemorating the Northern Ireland centenary as it urged the Government to also boycott the event.
The Government is expected to approve plans today to send a representative to the religious service, which President Michael D Higgins last month declined to attend.
While no decision has been made in advance of today’s Cabinet meeting, there is a growing expectation that Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney will represent Ireland.
A spokesman for Mr Coveney said no decision had been taken, but the issue will be discussed at Cabinet.
A cross-party delegation has also been suggested and will be part of the discussion today.
The “service of reflection and hope to mark the centenary of the partition of Ireland and the formation of Northern Ireland” takes place at St Patrick’s Church of Ireland Cathedral, Armagh, on October 21st.
It has been organised by church leaders across the island of Ireland who decided in late 2020 “after prayerful reflection and dialogue” to co-operate on “a collective programme of engagement with the 1921 centenaries.
Asked on RTÉ’s Morning Ireland should the Government send Mr Coveney to the event, Sinn Féin TD Pearse Doherty replied: “No. President Higgins was absolutely right in deciding not to attend that event.
“There are many ways in which we can forward the issues of reconciliation across the island of Ireland. Sinn Féin have been party to them including different events including meeting Queen Elizabeth in the past. But this isn’t about reconciliation. This is about commemorating partition, an act that had a devastating impact on our country,” Mr Doherty said.
“I think the public were behind the President’s decision and I think it would be wrong for the Cabinet to take the decision today to actually send Simon Coveney.”
Asked whether Sinn Féin would agree to attend as part of a cross-party group, Mr Doherty said: “This is a service about commemorating partition. Sinn Féin would not be party in that.
“In relation to reconciliation, you’ve seen down through the years many occasions where we’ve stretched ourselves. Indeed, we know that we have to stretch ourselves even further as the debate on Irish unity continues.”
The interdenominational service is to be attended by Queen Elizabeth and Mr Higgins’ decision prompted claims from some in the unionist community that it amounted to a snub.
Mr Higgins had said the title of the church service marking partition and the creation of Northern Ireland “wasn’t a neutral statement politically”.
The organisers subsequently said they had first become aware that the President would not attend on September 14th following contact by media.
“Had we been aware of the President’s concerns, we would have considered an alternative wording,” Presbyterian moderator Rev David Bruce said.
The current wording to include a reference to both partition and the creation of Northern Ireland “acknowledged the political fact of partition but recognised people’s different perceptions of that”, he said.
Minister for Justice Heather Humphreys has previously been linked with attendance. The expectation is now for Mr Coveney to represent the Government at the church service, given his frequent attendance at events in Northern Ireland as part of his departmental duties.
Mr Coveney has recently taken part in centenary events which included Sinn Féin, the British government and the DUP.
This morning, Mike Nesbitt, Ulster Unionist MLA has described the decision of President Michael D Higgins not to attend the Armagh commemoration service of the centenary of partition as “surprising and frustrating.”
Mr Nesbitt told RTÉ radio’s Today with Claire Byrne show that President Higgins had “outreach and reconciliation in his DNA.”
Had back channels been opened and used to convey the President’s concerns then a compromise on the language used could have been reached, he said.
Earlier on the same programme, Clare Fianna Fáil TD Cathal Crowe said it was his personal opinion that the Government should have “no hand, act or part” in the service. The event had “celebratory undertones” and that something that “celebrates partition is never positive in my book”.
Mr Crowe said he was not “telling” the Minister for Foreign Affairs how to act, but that “we shouldn’t jump cap in hand at every event in Northern Ireland.”
Mr Nesbitt said that the “cap in hand” comment was “quite insulting.”
The Minister for Foreign Affairs would be welcome to attend the service, and should do so, added Mr Nesbitt. However, the attendance of Mr Coveney would not “do away with the gross imbalance that the organisers did not want”.
Having one head of state and one Irish Government representative at the event would be “unfortunate”. Queen Elizabeth had been invited and he thought she would attend.
Meanwhile Linda Ervine, Irish language activist, who is president of East Belfast GAA club said she will be attending the event in Armagh at which she will be saying a prayer in Irish.
The response of President Higgins and others was disappointing because the church leaders had wanted the event to be a peaceful commemoration. “They wanted to show that together, they wanted life in Northern Ireland for all citizens to be good, to be peaceful.”