Unionist councillors have strongly rejected an SDLP claim that they snubbed the Irish president’s historic visit to Bellaghy on Sunday.
SDLP councillor Malachy Quinn said he was “disgusted” that not one unionist councillor had turned up to greet Michael D. Higgins at the Seamus Heaney Homeplace.
“This to me was nothing more than a snub to the Irish Head of State and falls below the standards that Mid-Ulster expects of its elected representatives,” he said.
“Last year we had Prince Charles visit the Heaney Centre and both the SDLP, who held the vice-chair position at the time, and Sinn Féin turned up to meet and greet him and his wife Camilla.
“It’s nothing short of a disgrace that not only did our DUP chair and UUP vice chair not attend this event there was no representation from either party.
“If this had been any other Head of State I have no doubt Unionists councillors would have been lining up for photographs so the only reasonable explanation for this snub was because pure bigotry.”
DUP Council Chair councillor Kim Ashton said she was attending a church event in Dungannon at the time of the visit.
“From the start of my term of office, I undertook only to attend church services or remembrance services on Sundays to ensure I had one day most weeks to spend time with my family,” she said in a statement.
“I have honoured that commitment since June last year. As the date of this visit could not be changed and as I was already attending a Festival of Praise in Dungannon organised by the Dungannon Area Churches Forum on the same day, I was not able to be at HomePlace on this occasion.
“This was outlined to the President’s Office from the outset which he respected.
“It’s unfortunate that Cllr Quinn cannot show the same respect to Unionists.
“However I made it clear to the Chief Executive that council representatives should be inattendance if they were willing to attend on a Sunday and Cllr Molloy agreed to be the Council representative on this occasion which he has done on a number of occasions during my year when I have not been able to attend an event.
“It should also be noted that no Unionist objected to this visit or hospitality being served.”
Ulster Unionist Party Councillor Trevor Wilson stressed there was no deliberate snub by his party.
“The Vice-Chair (Cllr Mark Glasgow) was unable to attend due to work commitments. Others do not attend events on Sundays and the remainder had prior engagements due to the short notice of the visit.
“Unlike the SDLP, we certainly do not wish to get into a slanging match over a visit by President Higgins to Northern Ireland. We hope he enjoyed his visit to the Heaney Centre.”
More than 70 guests, among them members of the wider Heaney family, gathered at the arts and literary centre to welcome the President and his wife, Sabina
There was a musical performance of ‘Slieve Gallion Braes’ and a poetry reading by the acclaimed actor Ian McElhinney.