Irish President pulls out of Belfast Easter Rising dinner over consensus concern
The Irish President has pulled out of attending a civic dinner in Belfast to mark the Easter Rising, citing concerns over a lack of political consensus around the occasion.
Michael D Higgins was due to be guest of honour at the event in Belfast City Hall on April 8 to commemorate the centenary of the Dublin rebellion against British rule.
The President's decision to withdraw comes after Democratic Unionist councillors made clear they would be boycotting the dinner.
A spokesman for Mr Higgins said: "The President accepted the invitation to the civic dinner on the basis that there was cross-party support for the invitation.
"This now is no longer the case, leaving the President 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 received a letter from the President outlining his reasons for pulling out.
Mr Carson said: "Both personally, and on behalf of Belfast City Council, I am extremely disappointed that the President is no longer attending this event, part of our decade of centenaries programme.
"The overall programme for the decade was agreed by full council and has cross-party support; and that position has not changed.
"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.
"In this important year which reflects on the centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising and the Battle of the Somme, Belfast City Council has shown leadership in how we mark these events and I would wish that to continue.
"The dinner will, of course, be going ahead on April 8 and I am very much looking forward to the occasion."
The President's decision has sparked a row between the DUP and Alliance Party, with the latter accusing the former of breaking an all-party agreement to mark a number of centenaries with civic occasions.
Alliance councillor Michael Long said: "There has been a long-standing agreement that three of the main anniversaries would each be marked with a dinner, which would be events exploring the consequences of violence and looking at the significance of each event.
"It was an all-party approach to the decade of centenaries that was respectful to all traditions, and done with reconciliation and building a shared future in mind. 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.
"It is particularly hypocritical of the DUP, given the party will likely be in attendance at the Somme event in a few months."
DUP Alderman Brian Kingston rejected the claims.
"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 and Covenant in 1912 to the formation of Northern Ireland in 1921," he said.
"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."