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Irish President pulls out of dinner in Belfast to mark Rising

By Rebecca Black

Published 01/04/2016

Michael D Higgins at an Easter Rising event in Dublin earlier this week
Michael D Higgins at an Easter Rising event in Dublin earlier this week

Irish President Michael D Higgins has pulled out of a number of Easter Rising events in Belfast because most unionists are boycotting them.

One of the events was a formal dinner at Belfast City Hall next Friday.

A spokesman for Mr Higgins said he had been left "with no other option but to withdraw as he does not want to become embroiled in matters of political controversy".

Sinn Fein Lord Mayor Arder Carson expressed his disappointment.

The Alliance Party blamed the withdrawal on the DUP refusing to attend the dinner.

The council's DUP group leader Brian Kingston said his party had never said it would attend the City Hall dinner, adding that its councillors' position was consistent with leader Arlene Foster's stance.

Mrs Foster, along with UUP leader Mike Nesbitt and Alliance leader David Ford, all declined invitations to attend the Irish State's official commemoration event in Dublin last week.

It is understood UUP councillor Jeff Dudgeon is the only unionist planning to attend the dinner.

A number of Alliance councillors will be present.

UUP council group leader David Browne said Mr Dudgeon will be the party's only representative attending, while the PUP and TUV said none of their councillors will be there.

It is understood Mr Higgins has also pulled out of an event at the city's Linen Hall Library.

Mr Carson spoke of his disappointment, while Sinn Fein council group leader Jim McVeigh criticised the Irish President.

"I had regard for Michael D Higgins until today," he said.

"Bad decision not to attend civic dinner. Thought he was my President as well? Obviously not!

"Partitionism of the worst kind."

Mr Carson confirmed the dinner next Friday, April 8, will still go ahead.

"The overall programme for the decade was agreed by full council and has cross-party support, and that position has not changed," he said.

"A lot of hard work has gone into creating an inclusive programme of events which is respectful of all viewpoints and which focuses on the key events of our shared history, and those which have impacted on our city."

Alliance group leader Michael Long claimed the DUP reneged on a deal.

"There has been a long-standing agreement that three of the main anniversaries would each be marked with a dinner," he explained.

"Therefore, it was disappointing the DUP has decided to not attend the Easter Rising dinner, which has led to President Higgins pulling out of the event."

Mr Kingston hit back, saying: "It was agreed that Belfast City Council would hold a series of events during the current 'decade of centenaries', from the centenaries of Ulster's Solemn League & Covenant in 1912 to the formation of Northern Ireland in 1921.

"At no stage did the DUP group say it would attend a civic dinner marking the centenary of the 1916 rebellion and it will not be attending.

"The DUP refutes the Alliance accusation that any agreement was broken and calls on Alliance group leader Michael Long to confirm that no such agreement of attendance was given. David Ford is the one all over the place. We are consistent in not celebrating the Easter rebellion. The Alliance party is not. David Ford didn't go to Dublin but will now celebrate in Belfast."

A spokesman for Aras an Uachtarain said President Higgins "accepted the invitation to the civic dinner on the basis that there was cross-party support for the invitation".

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