The Government has said it will send two representatives to a ceremony in Armagh marking the centenary of Northern Ireland.

In a statement this evening, the Government said that Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney and Chief Whip Jack Chambers will attend the event.

Last month, President Michael D Higgins declined an invitation to the event planned to take place at St Patrick's Church of Ireland Cathedral in Armagh on 21 October.

The service, which is being organised by the leaders of the main Christian churches, will mark the centenaries of the partition of Ireland and the formation of Northern Ireland.

Earlier, there had been are indications that should the Cabinet decide to send a minister, Simon Coveney would be best placed to attend.

The Minister for Foreign Affairs is regularly in Northern Ireland and works with all of the parties there on an ongoing basis.

The possibility of a cross-party delegation that could attend the event had also been mooted.

The church service is a focal point of a programme of events this year to mark 100 years since the island of Ireland was partitioned.

It is due to be attended by Britain's Queen Elizabeth.

In its statement this evening, the Government said: "In considering the invitation, the Government noted that its role in this matter is clearly distinct from that of the President.

"In that regard, the Government reiterates its full support and understanding for the decision made by President Higgins with regard to his attendance at the event. That decision was quite properly made by the President, and was based on concerns that he had consistently expressed.

"Cognisant of that important distinction, and in recognition also of the spirit and intentions of the Church Leaders in organising the event, the Government has decided that it will be represented at the event by the Minister for Foreign Affairs and by the Government Chief Whip."

In an interview with RTÉ's Prime Time, the Tánaiste reiterated the Government's reasoning behind the decision.

"We respect the decision of the President, but the role of head of State of President is different to that of the Government," he said.

"We have responsibility to engage with ministers in Northern Ireland all the time through the North-South Ministerial Council... and we think it's appropriate taking that into account that the Government is represented. Also we need to recognise that this has been established by four Christian churches including the Roman Catholic Church."

Last month, President Higgins said he decided it would be "inappropriate to attend".

He said the title of the event "isn't a neutral statement politically".

The Government said it did not advise the president to decline the invitation and clarified that it would be constitutionally prohibited from doing so.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin said that he respected President Higgins' decision.


Read more:
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Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald said the Government's decision to attend the event, commemorating "a catastrophic event for Ireland", is "very wrong".

Earlier, a Fianna Fáil TD said he believed the Government should have no "hand, act or part" in the service.

Cathal Crowe said the event has "celebratory undertones" and "something that celebrates partition is never positive in my book".

Speaking on RTÉ's Today with Clare Byrne, Deputy Crowe said he is not "telling the Foreign Minister how to act" but in his opinion a Government representative should not attend.

On the same programme, an Ulster Unionist MLA said that while Minister Coveney would be welcome to attend the service, and should do so, this does not "do away with the gross imbalance that the organisers did not want".

Mike Nesbitt said that having one head of state (Queen Elizabeth) and one Irish Government representative at the event would be "unfortunate".

President Higgins "has outreach and reconciliation in his DNA," Mr Nesbitt added, so it was "surprising and frustrating" that he declined an invitation to attend.

Meanwhile, SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said his party will accept an invitation to the service in Armagh.

"The partition of Ireland, more than any other event of the last 100 years, has had a profound political, economic and cultural impact on the lives of everyone who shares this island," said Mr Eastwood.

"I come from a tradition that views it as a traumatic and divisive constitutional event. But I recognise and cherish that we live in a community with diverse and divergent experiences of that moment.

"Turning your back on people who come from a different tradition, who have a different experience and a different perspective to offer doesn't change what happened 100 years ago, it only entrenches that division today.

"As an Irish nationalist, I will work every day to convince as many people as possible to consider our vision for the future. But how can we ever hope to do that if we refuse to acknowledge their experience of the past? How can we ever reconcile our divided communities if we refuse to meet people where they are and engage with them on their own terms?"

He added: "Attending a church service in Armagh, the ecclesiastical capital of Ireland, to mark the centenary of partition does not diminish anyone’s Irish nationalism. It will however, I hope, help to break down the barriers of distrust that have endured between our communities."

Govt should not attend Armagh service - Sinn Féin

Sinn Féin's finance spokesman earlier said it would be wrong for the Cabinet to take a decision to send Mr Coveney to the Armagh service.

Pearse Doherty also said that President Higgins was right to decline to attend the event and that the public "are behind that decision".

Speaking on RTÉ's Morning Ireland, Deputy Doherty said: "There are many ways to forward the issues of reconciliation across the island of Ireland but this is not about reconciliation but about commemorating partition".

There are many occasions relating to reconciliation where Sinn Féin "has stretched itself and we know we have to stretch ourselves even further," he added.

Mr Doherty said he does not think that "any country in the world would have a part in commemorating an event that had such devastating consequences as partition".

Aontú leader Peadar Tóibín said "no other government in the world would commemorate the partition of its own country. It's a peculiar element of our post-colonial psyche that we even have these conversations".