Ireland’s premier Micheal Martin has defended a decision by his government to attend a church service marking the centenary of Northern Ireland.
Sinn Fein vice president Michelle O’Neill criticised the decision to send representatives to the event in Armagh, which Irish president Michael D Higgins declined an invitation to.
The Taoiseach hit back, saying he was surprised by Sinn Fein’s stance, adding they sent a senior representative to a similar event organised by the Presbyterian Church.
The Irish minister for foreign affairs Simon Coveney, as well as Government chief whip Jack Chambers are to attend.
Last month, the Irish president caused controversy when he said he would not attend the service in Armagh because he believed it was not politically neutral and had concerns about the title of the event.
The prayer service, which the Queen is expected to attend, has been organised by the four main churches in Northern Ireland.
Speaking to reporters in Belfast on Friday, Mr Martin said his government’s stance “doesn’t in any way undermine the position of the president”.
He said the president, as the head of state, “comes at these issues from a different perspective”.
The president’s decision was properly taken and consistent with views he had articulated earlier in that process leading up to the invitationMicheal Martin
“There is a difference there between the head of state and the Government,” he said.
“In our statement last night we said the president’s decision was properly taken and consistent with views he had articulated earlier in that process leading up to the invitation.
“We fully support the president in that regard.
“The Government has then subsequently been invited to the event. We took on board the spirit in which that invitation was sent to us and we have decided to be represented at it, and we will just take it from there.
“I meet the president regularly in respect of a whole range of issues, those discussions are confidential, but you can take it from me there is no issue there in terms of the government decision or no sense of any difference.”
The Taoiseach also urged that people “should not seek to exploit this situation for political gain”.
“We need to move on in terms of working collectively together on this island in the spirit of reconciliation and joint endeavour into the future,” he added.
Earlier, Ms O’Neill said she thought it was the “wrong call”.
“It’s a matter for the Irish Government to make its own decisions. But I think that it is wrong for the Irish Government to attend the event,” she said.
“I think that we all know the sensitivities around the decade of centenaries and that those things need to be handled sensitively.
“But when it comes to the issue of partition, it’s a catastrophe. It’s failing people.
“It’s actually very current, and it impacts people’s lives here today and has been detrimental to relationships on this island and across these islands. So I think it’s wrong.”
Sinn Fein previously said it will not send a representative to the event.
Meanwhile, SDLP leader Colum Eastwood welcomed the move.
Asked if he thought Mr Higgins was wrong to decline an invitation to the event, Mr Eastwood said: “Absolutely not, and at the time I was very clear in defending the president’s position.
“The president is in a different position to me, I am not the president of Ireland. He has a different set of circumstances to weigh up. It’s very clear partition is a deeply political event … therefore I understand completely and I defend the president completely in his decision.
“I think the president has the right to make his decision given he is the head of state, it’s not a political position, and the government, I think, are right as well. We have to go to tough places, we have to engage with people we disagree with.”
Unionists in Northern Ireland were heavily critical of the decision by President Higgins not to attend the cross-community service.
Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said he welcomes the decision of the Irish Government to send representatives from Fianna Fail and Fine Gael.
“I still very much regret that President Higgins will not be attending that service,” the DUP leader added.
“But I appreciate that the Irish government have stepped up and will be sending representatives to the service.”