DUBLIN - Irish President Michael D. Higgins has said he will not attend a religious ceremony alongside Queen Elizabeth II commemorating the founding of Northern Ireland 100 years ago.
Higgins' decision has polarized the island, as Irish republicans who remain hostile to Ireland's 1921 partition praised the move, while the north's British unionists and some politicians in the south criticized Higgins.
The October 21 ceremony, to be held at the Church of Ireland cathedral in Armagh, was meant to gather together church leaders and the heads of state of the U.K. and Ireland.
Though the queen announced she would be in attendance, Higgins declined his invitation, initially offering no explanation.
However, while on a Rome visit to Pope Francis, Higgins told journalists he had would not attend because the event was not politically neutral - and also because the invitation had not used his correct office title.
The wording on the invitation strikes at the continuing battle over the island.
The Irish constitution considers the head of state to be president of all of Ireland, and also representing the Irish people worldwide.
Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said on Friday that his staff "didn't give any clear advice to the president" - nor should it have, as quoted by politico.eu.
"He is the head of state. He's entitled to make his own decisions on his own diary and the events that he attends," Coveney said.
However, Archbishop Eamon Martin, a leader of the Catholic Church in Ireland, said Higgins' refusal surprised him.
"It would have been very special if the president had been able to attend. It was a bit unexpected," Martin said, as reported by politico.eu.
During a later press conference in Rome, Higgins said he would not reconsider his decision.