For the President of Ireland to stand together with Queen Elizabeth at a church service in Armagh next month would convey a strong emotional message.
It would underline the simultaneous Irishness and Britishness of Northern Ireland. It would show that both views of sovereignty can be reconciled.
In fact, it would be a big step away from the exclusive territorial expression of sovereignty that underlies the Brexit policies of the current UK government.
The Queen, by standing as an equal beside our President, would be symbolically underlining the treaty based interest this state, that he represents, has in protecting the rights and privileges of people living in Northern Ireland, regardless of which power is technically sovereign over the territory. It would represent a major step away from the traditional unionist way of looking at what Northern Ireland is.
It should be welcomed by people on this side of the border. The vivid image of the two heads of state standing together in harmony, in a place of Christion worship, in the ecclesiastical capital of Ireland, would symbolise something really important, in a way that no amount of words on official papers ever could.
This is why I believe the President, who as a poet, understands the power of imagery, should think again about his decision to decline the invitation he received to worship God together with the Queen in Armagh on 21 October.
I understand the invitation to the President was dated 20 May, five months ago, so there was ample time for the President, in consultation with the government , to iron out any protocol difficulties that might have inhibited the President’s acceptance of the invitation.
I do not know when or how the President replied to the invitation he received five months ago and why his rejection of it emerged only this week.
It is very clear that the invitation was not to attend to any form of celebration, or self congratulation. It specifically calls for an “honest reflection” on the past 100 years and for the acknowledgement of “failures and hurts”.
I understand the invitation, which was from The Church Leaders Group (Ireland) , was addressed to
“The President of Ireland, Aras an Uachtarain, Phoenix Park, Dublin 8.
The invitation was to a “service of Reflection and Hope” to mark the centenary of the “partition of Ireland and the formation of Northern Ireland”. The President found these words unacceptably political. I do not see his point.
Partition is a reality and so is Northern Ireland.
The Irish people, in endorsing in a referendum the Good Friday Agreement, accepted that the existence of Northern Ireland represents the “present wish” of the people living there. The provision for a possible future border poll is the corollary of that acceptance of that in the Good Friday Agreement. They go together.
A rejection of an invitation to mark the centenary of Northern Ireland could be seen as suggesting that we in this state are not reconciled, at a deeper level , to things we have formally accepted in the referendum on the Good Friday Agreement, namely that Northern Ireland is, for the time being anyway, legitimately part of the UK.
It is true that the President has a measure of discretion as to the invitations he accepts or rejects.
But he is our head of state, not a private individual , and the decisions he takes to accept or reject particular invitations are decisions that have implications for the state and government of Ireland.
If the Irish government is seeking to reach out to both communities in Northern Ireland, that outreach should be reflected in the President’s decisions.
The State cannot afford to have divergent policies in Northern Ireland issues, one set in the Phoenix Park and another in Merrion Street. That is why Article 13(9) of the constitution is framed as it is.
The State should have a single policy on commemorations.
The Church leaders, who invited President Higgins two months later to Armagh, quoted St Paul
“So the let us pursue the things that make for peace and the building up of one another”.
That is the spirit in which the invitation was issued. That is the spirit in which I hope the President can look at this again.