‘I’m sure Mr Bruton would want to withdraw his remarks’ – President hits out at ex-Taoiseach amid partition event saga
18th September 2021
President Michael D Higgins has hit out at “very extraordinary” remarks by former Taoiseach John Bruton around the decision not to attend a partition event in the North.
It emerged earlier this week that Mr Higgins would not be at a centenary church commemoration of partition and the establishment of Northern Ireland scheduled for next month in Co Armagh.
The President denied that he snubbed Queen Elizabeth after refusing to attend, saying that a “religious event” had become a “political statement”.
President Higgins has said that Mr Bruton is “wrong” in his interpretation of the constitution after the former Taoiseach told BBC radio earlier today that “it appears he didn’t seek the advice of the Government which he is obliged to do under the Constitution” as to whether or not he should attend the event.
Mr Bruton said: “If he had fulfilled his obligation under the Constitution, which is to take the advice of the Irish Government on this matter, they would have advised him that he ought to go.”
Mr Higgins said that Mr Bruton’s remarks suggest that he acted “improperly” and said that it is “up to him” if he wants to withdraw them.
“With the greatest of respect to the former Prime minister, John Bruton is wrong in his interpretation of the constitution,” Mr Higgins told media in Rome, where he is currently on a visit.
“I welcome all of the suggestions but I have to take exception, quite frankly, to people who have suggested I have broken the constitution.
“I find it a very extraordinary comment from the former prime minister and a member of the Council of State who has always been treated with courtesy by me.
He also said that it is “up to” the former Taoiseach if he wants to withdraw his remarks but declined that he was calling on him to do so.
“And I am sure that Mr Bruton would want to withdraw his remarks.”
“It’s up to him as to whether he wants to withdraw the remarks he has made about the President, practically suggesting that the President has behaved improperly.”
The President also criticised Mr Bruton’s comments that the commemoration “wasn’t an invitation to the opening of a credit union in Co Kerry”, saying that he cannot think of “any more important” event.
“I think he might want to withdraw his remarks about the significance of a credit union meeting in Kerry because I can’t think of any more important organisation than a credit union movement and it is as important in Kerry as it is anywhere else,” Mr Higgins.
He said that he was a political scientist for 25 years and that he “understands” the Constitution.
Mr Higgins added that if Mr Bruton does not retract his comments “that’s his business. He may want to say stronger things tomorrow, good luck to him.”
“The reality is what the reality is,” he said.
The President said that he refused to attend the event because he decided it was inappropriate.
“I have decided that it would be inappropriate to attend.”
He said that he has been “considering this” for six months, since being invited in March.
“If this event is titled as it is and structured as it is, it would present difficulties and that is the beginning.
“It isn’t a sudden decision, it is the outcome of a consideration.”
He said that the Irish people have “some confidence” in him to make “an informed decision”.
“We had an election in this country for the presidency, and I was elected. It is still my belief that the people have some confidence in my ability to arrive at an informed decision.”
Mr Higgins also clarified that he took issue with DUP leaders referring to him as the President of the Republic of Ireland and not the organisers of the event.
He said that DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson has a right to free speech and that he won’t be “interfering with his right.”
“He can call me anything he likes. The facts are what the facts are.”
He said that he would not be attending the commemoration event.
Mr Higgins has also denied that the controversy has overshadowed his visit to Rome.
“It didn’t enormously,” he said.
Mr Higgins said that Mr Coveney’s comments today that the Department of Foreign Affairs did not give any “clear advice” on whether or not he should attend the commemoration were helpful.
Meanwhile, former Taoiseach John Bruton has acknowledged that the “provisions of the constitution appear to have been fulfilled” in relation to President Higgins decision not to attend the centenary Church service in Armagh.
This comes after comments by Mr Bruton to BBC Radio today suggested the President had not fulfilled his duties under the constitution by seeking Government advice on whether to attend the ceremony or not.
Mr Bruton sent a statement to Drivetime on RTÉ this evening to clarify that “this was before a subsequent statement from the Minister for Foreign Affairs that the Government did have an opportunity to offer advice but did not do so”.
Mr Bruton said he was “happy that this was the case, and the matter was now clarified”.
He continued by saying, “I still believe the President should go to Armagh next month” and that he did not see “any problem with the title of the proposed service” which he said refers to “simple realities, namely partition and the creation of Northern Ireland”.
The former Taoiseach said President Higgins and the Queen standing together in the “ecclesiastical capital of Ireland” would be a “powerful symbol of a new way forward for this island”. He said it would recognise the “diverse allegiances” that exist on the island.