Disquiet in Government after Higgins goes his own way

President had been considering whether he should attend North centenary event for some time

There is a golden rule of dealing with President Michael D Higgins in government – never take him on because he is more popular than you are. The rule was followed by past governments, and it is followed by the current Coalition. So nobody will be publicly critical of the President in the current controversy.

Nonetheless there is disquiet in some parts of the Coalition at the President's refusal to attend a religious service to mark the centenary of Northern Ireland. While several Government sources shrugged at the affair, perhaps not unhappy that it was distracting attention from the Coalition's public woes this week, others used terms such as "provocative", "very embarrassing" and "appalling" to describe the President's decision.

The Department of Foreign Affairs is working frantically to ease the tensions caused by the President’s decision. If there is something performative about the Democratic Unionist Party’s outrage on the subject, officials believe that there is very real upset among moderate unionists over the affair.

The President has been assuring people that no snub was intended. But it seems clear that some people are feeling snubbed.


It is expected that an invitation may be issued to the Government to send a representative to the event, and that invitation will be expected. Sources say, however, that it is unlikely that the Taoiseach would attend as that would be interpreted as a direct rebuke to the President for his decision. A Minister is likely to be deputed.


How did it come to this? Within Government fingers are being pointed at the Department of Foreign Affairs, which mostly manages relations between the Executive and the Áras.

But Higgins is not really a President who is directed to do this or that: he makes up his own mind. Some officials raised an eyebrow when they heard Simon Coveney describing how the President takes advice and then makes up his mind. Well, one thought, one part of that is true.

While the Government must give its consent when the President wishes to travel outside the State, the Áras operates a high degree of independence on its diary. Which events he chooses to attend is a matter for the President, the Department of Foreign Affairs confirmed.

In fact, the possibility of attending the event had been knocking about for months, it is understood, with the President carefully considering the matter over a long period of time before reaching his decision.

While he has explained that he believed that the event had become "political", and as such not suitable, senior sources speculate that a factor also at play was the fear of a repeat of the backlash against the planned commemoration of the Royal Irish Constabulary in January of 2020. Then a furious public reaction at the proposed event – characterised in many circles as "celebrating the Black and Tans" – caused the Fine Gael-led government to sustain considerable political damage and eventually cancel the event. Perhaps commemorating partition might carry similar political dangers.

Better at politics

This is speculation, of course. But it hardly seems implausible. As one Government insider put it, “Michael D is better at politics than the Government”.

Whatever the intention, the fact is that the affair has polarised opinion, with many unionists feeling rebuffed, and many nationalists defending, and indeed celebrating, his refusal to attend the event.

Perhaps, ironically, many of those who are most enthusiastically endorsing the President’s decision include those who advocate for a united Ireland most forcefully. It would be hard to argue that the refusal to attend the event is likely to make unionists look more favourably at that prospect.