THE Irish President has defended his decision to decline an invitation to a church service marking Northern Ireland’s centenary, and denied it was a “snub to the Queen”.

The service, due to be held in County Armagh next month, will mark the cententaries of the partition of Ireland and the formation of Northern Ireland.

Michael D Higgins said that the event is being “politicised” and it would therefore be inappropriate for him to attend.

The DUP have criticised Higgins's explanation for not attending the service and said his comments were “not conducive towards reconciliation”.

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Higgins, who is currently on a visit to Rome, said he will not be revisiting his decision to stay away from the service in Armagh next month.

Higgins told the Irish Times: “We are past the point now and I think it is unfortunate.”

The president denied he is snubbing the Queen and said his issue is with the title of the service.

He said: “There is no question of any snub intended to anybody.

“I am not snubbing anyone and I am not part of anyone’s boycott of any other events in Northern Ireland.

“I wish their service well but they understand that I have the right to exercise a discretion as to what I think is appropriate for my attendance.

The National: Higgins defended his decision not to attend the church service

He said: “What (had started out as) an invitation to a religious service had in fact become a political statement.

“I was also referred to as the president of the Republic of Ireland. I am the president of Ireland.”

DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said he was “surprised” by Higgins’s comments and thought he would “have risen above the politics of all of this”.

Donaldson said: “He uses language that, I think, is unfortunately retrograde.

"He talks about being the president of Ireland, not the president of the Republic of Ireland, despite the fact that people voted to remove the territorial claim over Northern Ireland and that there was recognition in the constitution of the Republic of Ireland of the existence of Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom.

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“I think the language used by the president is not forward-looking and doesn’t recognise the reality that Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom. It’s back to the old days when the president believes that he is president of the whole island, which we all know he is not.

“I have to say that the comments made by President Higgins really are not conducive towards reconciliation.”

Higgins challenged the DUP criticism. He said: “It’s a bit much, to be frank with you. I have gone up to Northern Ireland to take part in events.

“There often has not been a great deal of traffic down from the DUP people who are criticising me now.”

The National:

Jeffrey Donaldson was critical of Higgins's decision and reasoning

Irish Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney has insisted that Higgins made his own decision when choosing not to attend a service marking the centenary of Northern Ireland.

Coveney said the Irish government gave Higgins no “clear advice” on the invitation to the event in Armagh.

He said: “I think it’s quite clear from the statements that the president has made in relation to it that he made his own decision.

"He is the head of state, he’s entitled to make his own decisions on his own diary and the events that he attends, and I think he’s answered for himself on that.”