Why Higgins Won’t Go To Church: A Tale of Two Irelands

  • The President of Ireland has controversially declined an invitation to a church service marking the partition of Ireland.
  • Amid poor relations on the island due to Brexit complications, the Government and the public are divided on the President’s decision.
  • The rejection will likely have a significant impact on North-South relations.
Source: JOE

President of the Republic of Ireland Michael D. Higgins made headlines in September when he announced that he would not be attending a church service to mark the centenaries of the partition of Ireland and the formation of Northern Ireland this year. While it may not seem entirely unusual that a busy president skips a ceremonial event, the decision has sparked controversy on the island and created political difficulties between the two state governments. 

The event marks the 100-year anniversary of the creation of Northern Ireland in 1921 and thus the partition of Ireland. For members of the Irish public both north and south of the border, the date may mark a celebration or a curse. Either way, Mr Higgins’ refusal to attend the event – at which the Queen of England will be in attendance – reflects the unhealed wounds in Irish society.

Why did Higgins reject the invitation?

Re-elected for a second term in a landslide victory in 2018, Mr Higgins is a popular and beloved figure in Irish politics, recently enjoying social media fame for images of his Bernese Mountain Dogs playing with French President Macron. However, it is important to understand that the presidential role in Ireland is largely ceremonial and representative, with little real political power. This means that the president does not speak about affairs pertaining to the Irish Government, nor do they engage in affairs deemed “political”. Nonetheless, as representative of the state, the president’s actions can have political ramifications. 

Given the nature of the presidential role, Mr. Higgins said the title of the event – in referring to the partition of Ireland – is not politically neutral and it would therefore be inappropriate for him to attend. Church officials have criticised the President for this statement and stated that were he unable to attend due to a “language” issue, appropriate arrangements could have been made for the sake of his attendance. However, Mr. Higgins did not communicate the rejection for six months, ruling out this possibility.

Furthermore, he originally claimed that Church officials addressed him as “President of the Republic of Ireland” rather than his true title “President of Ireland”, stating this to be among his reasons for rejecting the invitation; this later turned out to be untrue.

Other than the reasons offered by the President himself, it is not entirely clear whether there are other factors influencing the decision. The Government’s response suggests they were surprised by the President’s choice and their own approach has differed significantly as two senior government officials will now be attending the service; one of whom stated that the event need not be interpreted as “political”.

Indeed, Mr Higgins is set to host an academic discussion about the partition of Ireland in November. He has therefore taken issue with the event itself, perhaps perceiving its location – a Protestant cathedral in Northern Ireland – or the presence of the Queen, as too divisive and politically tinged. Alternatively, he may be unwilling to engage with Unionist officials who see his position as that of a foreign leader, rather than a national one. Nonetheless, the President’s decision has and will impact political relations on the island at a particularly difficult time.

Why is the rejection controversial?

The polarised reaction both in Government and the public suggests that either way the President’s decision would have caused controversy. By declining, he has snubbed the Unionists and the effort made by both sides for reconciliation. Had he accepted, he would have alienated those members of the Irish public for whom partition represents a painful injustice.

Anglo-Irish history is no stranger to politicians squabbling over event attendance and tit-for-tat treatment. There is a long record of avoidance of contact at head-of-state level between Irish leaders and British officials, especially when members of the Crown are involved. Any refusal to engage in ceremonial events is therefore a symptom of worsening relations and an unwillingness to reconcile.

Tensions are high in North-South and British-Irish relations in general due to the complications of Brexit and the Northern Ireland Protocol. The ruling party in the North, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP),  is currently not on favourable terms with the Irish government, and all ruling parties in the Republic support the possibility of a united Ireland. Over the two decades since the negotiation of the Good Friday Agreement, the participation and attendance by political figures at Ireland-wide events – such as commemorations of Irish history – has been considered an essential element of peace on the island when relations between the governments are poor.

Mr Higgins was quick to accuse the DUP of complaining of his refusal to attend the event while there “has not been a great deal of traffic” to the Republic (in referring to a lack of DUP members engaging in Irish political events). However, while of late there is truth in his statement, former DUP leader Arlene Foster travelled to the Republic for a 2016 event marking the centenary of the separation of Ireland from Britain, in spite of her ideological opposition to the celebration.

What does this mean for Ireland?

North-South relations are currently in the most precarious situation since the Good Friday Agreement was signed. Irish peace is ensured by the prevention of a hard border on the island and, arguably more importantly, by the right of Northern Irish people to choose to identify themselves and be accepted as Irish or British or both. The effects of Brexit (which Northern Ireland voted against) are forcing the people to choose. Since the referendum in 2016, the possibility of a united Ireland has been somewhat of a hot topic in the media. However, the path to unification, if there is one, will not be without conflict, rebellion, and damage to both sides. This year has already seen increased instability since the negotiation of the Northern Ireland Protocol.

In this context, it is difficult to justify the President’s position. The role of the President of Ireland is often dismissed as largely irrelevant to Irish politics and less so abroad, but Mr. Higgins is the most important political figure shared by both the North and the Republic. As a man often portrayed primarily as an academic, he undoubtedly understands the divisiveness of his decision. As a former politician, he should be equipped with the skills to mitigate the fallout, or indeed find a solution. Church officials were willing to change the title of the event and better communication through behind-the-scenes diplomacy would have gone far.

The decision to blatantly decline after months of silence is political in itself and undermines the President’s reason for not attending; the controversy of the rejection and Mr Higgins’ handling of it has taken on a political tinge far greater than that of the title of the event. The work of reconciliation is more vital now than anytime in the last two decades. Mr Higgins’ decision has only contributed to the difficulty of this work.

Claudia Bond

R&A Alumna