A prominent historian who advises the Government about contentious commemorations has rejected claims by President Michael D. Higgins that an ecumenical service to mark partition is political in nature.
Dr Eamon Phoenix said next month’s service in Armagh organised by the main Christian traditions on the island, which President Higgins has refused to attend, was about building bridges and rejected characterisations of the event as celebrating partition.
He insisted that the event was part of a framework based on “respectful and ethical” remembrance, and that such events are designed to be “inclusive to the maximum”, rather than “contentious”.
President Higgins declined to attend the service with Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II next month which is due to be held in the Church of Ireland cathedral in the city and was organised by Church leaders including Primate of All-Ireland Archbishop Eamon Martin.
Speaking to The Irish Catholic, Dr Phoenix – who is a member of the Taoiseach’s expert advisory group of the decade of centenaries – said the Armagh event is organised in the same spirit as other recent commemorations. These events are intended to be “ways of bridge-building,” he said.
“I was surprised – as were many other people – when that [politicisation] became the gravamen of the president’s objection.
“The whole idea of using that phrase [A service of reflection and hope, to mark the centenary of the partition of Ireland and the formation of Northern Ireland], which was picked up on by the Churchmen, was to equalise it, not to politicise it,” Dr Phoenix explained.
He said the Christian traditions were “always” going to be in a dilemma with the anniversary of the division of the island, as “once you say ‘partition’, to the nationalist/republican community, it raises the idea of coercion.
“If you say it to somebody from the unionist community, then it’s the birth of a homeland outside of a Catholic, theocratic state,” Dr Phoenix said, continuing, “unionists felt it was inevitable and a very good thing”.
Archbishop Martin expressed his disappointment on RTÉ’s This Week that the president will not be present. “I think there must be some misunderstanding. Back in March, we shared some concerns that our service was being taken in a different direction, but we were unaware about this issue to do with the title.
“It’s very important for me to say today very, very clearly what this service is and what it is not. It was never, and it is not, a celebration. It is very much a moment of acknowledgement, taking account of the fact that there are very different narratives out there about 1921.
“I think that our Church leaders group were very much aware that what we were going to do here was to try to hold together in a certain amount of tension the different narratives,” the primate said.
Dr Phoenix also described as regretful the fact that the expert group of which he is a member was not consulted by the Government or officials at Áras an Uachtaráin before the president declined the invite.
“Expertise was there, and sometimes it’s not sought in situations where perhaps a perspective on things would be helpful,” he said.
“It would be nice if officials came to the Taoiseach’s expert advisory group and just sounded them out on these things, because we meet every month without fail for hours, discussing all of these matters.
“If expert advice was sought from people who actually are dedicated to resolving these kind of issues, then that would be helpful,” Dr Phoenix said.