Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 21 December 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Royal visit to Northern Ireland: Once notorious, now the Crumlin Road prison is a symbol of our journey to peace

McGuinness in the 1980s
McGuinness in the 1980s
Robinson in the 1980s

Publicity doesn't get much better than this, and we should make the most of it. There can be few better examples of beating swords into ploughshares than Crumlin Road prison. In its heyday it was a grey Victorian monstrosity of brutality built to deter would-be offenders and intimidate its inmates.

The Crum, they called it. I remember visiting prisoners there. The interior was, then as now, a miracle of wrought iron staircases and landings, but it was dark, oppressive and overcrowded.

Now it has been transformed into a tourist attraction, a theme park to our penal history and a reminder of just how far we have come. A distillery is planned to make local whiskey and you can have your office party there.

During the Queen's Silver Jubilee visit here in 1977 few could have predicted that she would one day be shown round the Crum by two ex- inmates – one a former IRA commander and the other a former unionist hardliner, and that all three would be VIP guests. The unionist, Peter Robinson, was imprisoned four times on C wing, the very wing which is now done up for tourists, after taking part in demonstrations against the Anglo-Irish agreement. Martin McGuinness was in A wing on IRA membership charges, which were dropped and which he denied.

Yesterday, television commentators played that angle to the full in what was practically a hymn to Northern Ireland, its innovative people and its troubled but colourful history.

It was the same at the other venues. The Queen was shown walking around the set of Game Of Thrones, the most popular TV series ever filmed by HBO with 18.4 million viewers per episode. Her Majesty stood obligingly beside the Iron Throne of Westeros. She baulked at sitting on it (one doesn't) but did speak to some of the stars including her fictional opposite number, Queen Cersei. The commentary was pure gold.

Game Of Thrones came here for the grants, we were told, but stayed for the wonderful locations and 'can do' attitude of the locals. Tours in the locations were plugged as was the Game Of Thrones exhibition and Titanic Belfast. We heard about the innovative craftspeople who made the props. Then it was on to the wonderful local fare being served at the City Hall and on sale in St George's Market, a shopping experience which, we were reminded, TripAdvisor rates highly.

In 1977 the Queen had slept aboard the Royal Yacht Britannia because staying onshore overnight was too dangerous. She was protected by 32,000 police and troops and flew around the place in a helicopter. Even so, she narrowly escaped a timer delay bomb in Coleraine. Coverage was coloured by IRA threats to give her "a visit to remember" and her itinerary was not revealed in advance. That sent an awful message to investors and visitors.

This time the message has changed, but as a reminder of how fickle this sort of publicity can be, the coverage on news channels swiftly halted with news of the conviction of Andy Coulson, the Prime Minister's ex-adviser, for phone hacking when he was editor of News of the World.

Bad news – violence or scandal – generally drives out good news.

It is the same with local stories. Last year we had a similar run of positive imagery when the G8 came to Fermanagh around this time. The mood music soon changed when the marching season erupted.

This year we enjoyed an even better run of positive publicity with the success of the Giro d'Italia, which presented us to the world as smiling, happy people living in stunning countryside – the sort of place you would want to visit now that it seemed safe to do so. The royal visit, with former prisoners Robinson and McGuinness in attendance, builds on this positivity.

The last thing we want to do is push ourselves onto the international news agenda because of bitterness, racial attacks or marching disputes.

These are things we need to sort out and quickly. The Queen is no slouch at image building and she put it well when she said that "the world yearns for examples of positive transformation and of people overcoming differences. I hope and believe that Belfast will continue to be one such living example."

We hope so, too.

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