The Irish government consulted the president on an invitation to attend a Northern Ireland centenary event, but the decision to decline was theirs, a minister insisted.
Foreign Secretary Simon Coveney said his ministry had not given Michael D Higgins any clear advice on whether or not to attend church service in Armagh next month.
Mr Higgins has defended his decision to decline the invitation to the event, which the Queen is expected to attend.
The president said the service’s title, which says the event will mark the centenary of the partition of Ireland and the formation of Northern Ireland, has been “politicized” and, as such, it it would be inappropriate for him to attend.
Mr Higgins, who is currently visiting Rome, said he would not change his decision to stay away.
Trade unionists criticized her non-participation, with DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson questioning whether it was politically motivated following advice from the Irish government.
Mr Coveney was asked about the controversy during a visit to Belfast.
âThere have been consultations between the Foreign Office and the Aras (official residence of the President) on this issue and many others, but I can assure you that President Higgins is the kind of person who takes his own decisions, âhe said.
âHe listens to all points of view and then makes a judgment for himself.
âAnd, you know, he made up his mind about it. He gave an explanation on the basis of that decision and I think we have to respect that.
The minister said he “was not going to question the decisions of the Irish president”.
“He makes his own decisions and he makes his own choices, and I respect that.”
Mr Coveney added: âMy department would be involved in consultations with Aras An Uachtarain and the President’s team on a regular basis on a lot of things; we did not give clear advice to the president in relation to this particular event.
âI think it is clear from the statements the President has made on this matter that he made his own decision. He is the head of state, he has the right to make his own decisions about his own newspaper and the events he attends, and I think he responded to that himself.
When asked if he would attend the service himself if invited, Mr Coveney said: ‘The Irish government has not received an invitation to the event you are referring to, but, if we receive an invitation, of course, we will give it serious consideration. “
Mr Higgins said he would not reconsider his decision.
“We are past the stage now and I think it is unfortunate,” he told The Irish Times.
The president denied snubbing the queen.
“What (started out as) an invitation to a church service had in fact turned into a political statement.”
“There is no question of a snub aimed at anyone,” he said. âI am not snubbing anyone and I am not part of the boycott of anyone of any other event in Northern Ireland.
“I wish their service the best of luck, but they understand that I have the right to exercise discretion as to what I think is appropriate for my presence.”
Mr Higgins said his problem was with the title of the service.
âWhat (started out as) an invitation to a church service actually turned into a political statement,â he said. âI was also called the President of the Republic of Ireland. I am the President of Ireland.
Mr Higgins also took issue with the criticisms of the DUP.
âIt’s a bit too much, to be honest with you. I went to Northern Ireland to participate in events, âhe said.
“Often there hasn’t been a lot of traffic from the DUP people who are criticizing me now.”
Mr Higgins, who was due to meet with the Pope on Friday, said on the day of the service he had already agreed to host the Statistical and Social Survey Association of Ireland at his official residence at Aras an Uachtarain in Dublin.
I must say President Higgins’ comments are really not conducive to reconciliation
Reacting to Mr Higgins’ latest comments, Sir Jeffrey accused him of “retrograde” measures.
“The president made his position clear, but I have to say I’m very surprised – I really thought the president would have risen above the politics of all of this,” the DUP chief told BBC Radio Ulster .
âHe uses language that I think, unfortunately, is backward. He talks about being the President of Ireland, not the President of the Republic of Ireland, despite the fact that people voted to remove the land claim on Northern Ireland and there was recognition in the constitution of the Republic of Ireland the existence of Northern Ireland Ireland is part of the United Kingdom.
âI think the language used by the President is not forward looking and does not recognize the reality that Northern Ireland is part of the UK. It’s a throwback to the good old days where the president believes he’s president of the whole island, which we all know he isn’t.
“I must say that the comments made by President Higgins are really not conducive to reconciliation.”