Helicopters buzzed overhead, police flooded the streets and grief wafted through the air, but King Charles’ visit to Northern Ireland did not feel like a replay of The Troubles. Rather the opposite.
The monarch’s foray across the Irish Sea on Tuesday brought the clock back to a more recent time when reconciliation between Unionists and Nationalists, and Ireland and Britain, seemed strong, if not inevitable.
The sun shone, leaders from all political stripes found common ground, and for a few hours it felt like the dizzying period of a decade ago when the royal family rubbed balm on the wounds left through centuries of conflict, creating hope for a more harmonious future.
“If he does half as well as his mother, he will be brilliant,” said Jackie Graham, 78, as crowds gathered in Belfast to welcome the new monarch. Charles could revive the lost art of reconciliation, Graham said. “He’s going to have to get on with it. When her mother came down to the Free State, everything changed. I think Charlie could do that too.
Crowds cheered and waved union jacks as Charles and Camilla, the Queen Consort, arrived at Hillsborough Castle in County Down and then St Anne’s Cathedral in Belfast.
Nationalists and Republicans whose allegiance lay elsewhere did not join in the cries of “God save the King”, but they too welcomed him, they too expressed their condolences for the death of Queen Elizabeth, and they also seemed hopeful that royalty could once again resurrect the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement.
“I hope you and your family can take comfort in the appreciation and warmth that has accompanied tributes to the Queen across these islands and indeed around the world,” King Alex Maskey, President of the King, said. Assembly of Stormont.
A familiar sentiment now, except in this instance uttered by a former IRA internee and Sinn Féin member, who during the Troubles defended deadly attacks on ‘crown forces’ and Lord Louis Mountbatten, mentor of the Prince Charles.
When Queen Elizabeth visited the Republic of Ireland in 2011 and won an enthusiastic response with gestures of reconciliation, Sinn Féin followed the public sentiment. A year later, Martin McGuinness shook his hand, and in 2015, Gerry Adams shook hands with Prince Charles. It was a high point in Irish-British relations.
“She showed how a small but meaningful gesture, a visit, a handshake, crossing the street or speaking a few words of Irish, can make a huge difference in attitude change and relationship building,” said Maskey said.
Others echoed the tributes, which amounted to a tacit request: please do it again. Brexit has soured relations between Nationalists and Unionists, and Dublin and London, creating a bitter political stalemate and yearning in some quarters for another round of feel-good royal alchemy.
Sinn Féin has urged campaigners and supporters not to spoil the mood by celebrating the Queen’s death – an injunction widely respected and recognized by trade unionists who cheered the King.
“They have all been respectful and say the right things. That’s all you can ask for,” said Iris Manson, 54, a Protestant from Ballymena.
Ben McAuley, 22, said he saw nationalists gloating over the Queen’s death on Facebook, but overall he was surprised. “I thought it would have been a lot worse, but it wasn’t that bad. James McIlveen, 66, agrees: “The political reaction has been positive. One or two small incidents but generally quite good.
A Belfast Telegraph editorial praised Sinn Féin, the Social Democrat and Labor Party and other nationalists for showing empathy to bereaved trade unionists in a rare show of solidarity. “Our politicians have reflected the best of us, and for that they deserve praise.”
The Brexit truce continued in St Anne’s Cathedral where Irish Taoiseach Micheál Martin literally sang from the same hymn sheet as Liz Truss and Ian Paisley, the Democratic Unionist MP, shook hands of Simon Coveney, the Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs. After the service, the King returned to London and the congregation dispersed.