President Michael D Higgins has strongly criticised "very extraordinary" remarks made by former taoiseach John Bruton on his decision not to attend a partition event in Northern Ireland.
Mr Bruton had suggested that President Higgins was in breach of the constitution by not seeking advice from government over his decision not to attend the “political” event commemorating the establishment of Northern Ireland.
Speaking in Rome, President Higgins said that Mr Bruton is wrong in his interpretation of the constitution.
On various radio shows this morning, Mr Bruton said it appeared the President did not 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.
“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,” he said.
In response, President Higgins said that Mr Bruton’s remarks suggest that he acted improperly.
He 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,” the President said.
"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 added.
“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 said.
President Higgins also lashed out at Mr Bruton’s comments that the commemoration wasn’t the same as the opening of a credit union in Co Kerry.
“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.
In his comments, Mr Bruton had accused President Higgins of poor judgment in declining the invitation and of being in breach of his constitutional obligations.
“It would be a very brave decision for the President to change his mind, it would be difficult. But I think sometimes in life one makes mistakes." he said adding that he should have the "strength of character" to recognise the mistake.
Given the sensitivity of the event, Mr Bruton suggested that the President should have consulted the Government before responding to the invitation.
"Article 39 of the Constitution is very clear that the President's powers and functions can only be exercised with the advice and on the advice of the Irish government," he claimed.
"It seems to me that the President clearly ought to have taken and followed the advice of the government and not acted on his own," Mr Bruton told RTÉ's Today with Claire Byrne show.
In a statement issued on Friday evening, Mr Bruton said he stood by his initial interpretation of the constitution.
However, he did accept that President Higgins had been in dialogue with the Government.
“I believe the decision, to accept or decline this invitation, which President Higgins received as Head of State, is definitely in exercise of his ” function” as Head of State,” he said.
“But when I referred, this morning, to his response to the invitation from Church leaders, the information in the public domain then was that the President had acted on his own in this matter.”
He continued: “This was before a subsequent statement by the Minister for Foreign Affairs that the government did have an opportunity to offer advice but did not do so. In light of this, the provisions of the constitution now do appear to have been fulfilled. I am happy that that is the case and that the matter is now clarified. That said, I still believe to President should go to Armagh next month. He went on to say that the event represented a valuable opportunity to recognise the “present constitutional realities, while pointing the way to a more hopeful future.”
“It is a valuable opportunity to recognise the present constitutional realities, while pointing the way to a more hopeful future. Two heads of state standing together in the ecclesiastical capital of Ireland would be a powerful symbol of a new way forward for this island. It would recognise the diverse allegiances that exist on this island.”
Taoiseach Micheal Martin, speaking in Fermoy said he respected the President’s decision and understands his position on the matter.
“He’s given his reasons. And the president has given a lot of time to commemoration, he takes it very seriously.
"He has a longstanding commitment to peace and reconciliation on the island.
"He has made his decision now and as he said himself, we should move on.” He said that the relationship between Ireland and the United Kingdom has been transformed over the last 30 years and this latest controversy will not harm it," he said.
Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney said his department did not offer Michael D Higgins any clear advice on whether he should or should not go to the church service in Armagh next month.
Mr Coveney was asked about the controversy during a visit to Belfast.
"There was consultation between the Department of Foreign Affairs and the Aras [resident's official residence] on this issue and many other issues, but I can assure you President Higgins is the kind of person who makes his own decisions," he said.
During their meeting in the Vatican, Pope Francis has described President Higgins as a “wise man of today” during an Audience in the Vatican on Friday morning.
President Higgins met the Pontiff for the fourth time on Friday and discussed issues including climate change, environment and global inequality.
During the formal photocall, the Pope said: “Today, I did not just meet a man, a President, I met a wise man of today.
“I thank God that Ireland has such a wise man as its Head (of State).”