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Why Prince Charles' quest for peace is royally good example to rest of us

By Mary Kenny

Time heals all wounds, it is said, and it certainly lends perspective to memory. Only now has Prince Charles really spoken out about his feelings when his uncle and mentor, Lord Louis Mountbatten, was killed by the IRA in Sligo in 1979.

Visiting Colombia at the end of last week, he spoke to the families of victims of that country's long civil war, telling them that he could identify with their feelings of loss because of Mountbatten. He said he understood the "bewildering and soul-destroying anguish" that occurs in these circumstances. "Many of you will probably not know that my own much-loved great-uncle, Lord Mountbatten, and members of his family, including one of my godsons, were murdered just over 30 years ago."

Charles went on to say that he felt "intense despair caused by the consequences of violence". And yet, he urged Colombian people to "continue cultivating a commitment to peace and reconciliation".

The assassination of Mountbatten certainly was a key moment in Anglo-Irish history, not least because it provoked such an outpouring of distress and shame in Ireland itself and among Irish people. Mountbatten - who died alongside one of his twin grandsons, Nicholas Knatchbull, and a local boy, Paul Maxwell, who was also in the boat blown up by the Provisional IRA at Mullaghmore, just off the Sligo coast - had been a regular visitor to that part of Sligo, and people were familiar with his summer holiday visits.

So there was a discernible feeling in Ireland that, somehow, a long tradition of hospitality had been trampled on. In letters to the newspapers, the word "shame" was used repeatedly, that the long tradition of "Cead Mile Failte" had been stained.

The Royal family at the time were of course appalled, although their comments were restricted to an austere formula of mourning. And yet, they must have known that it could have been worse: British intelligence more than once warned that the IRA had in its sights a "high-profile" target, as a symbolic gesture of avenging Bloody Sunday, as well as a daring act of war.

Just a month previously, in July 1979, the INLA had killed the Tory politician (and special adviser to Margaret Thatcher) Airey Neave. The great fear, among the intelligence community, was that the IRA might target the Queen, Prince Philip or Charles. Elizabeth had had a disastrous reception when visiting Northern Ireland two years previously, when there were noisy demonstrations showing the queen hanged in effigy, and large placards saying: 'ER - Queen of Death' - as a political protest against Westminster policies in the North. Some voices took a slightly more sceptical approach to the murders.

The late Tony Benn noted the episode in his diary almost with satisfaction. He called it a "turning point" for politics towards Northern Ireland. "The murder of an international figure, the Supreme Allied Commander in South-East Asia during the war, a Viceroy of India, a member of the royal family, is going to make people think again about Northern Ireland. The whole world will discuss this particular event."

It was subsequently disclosed that Mountbatten had been warned by gardai not to visit Sligo that year because feelings were running high (and presumably they knew of the Provos' objective of hitting a "high profile target".) Later, too, the Anglo-American historian Andrew Roberts wrote in his book 'Eminent Churchillians' that Mountbatten himself had rebuffed advice about security and safety; he apparently told friends: "I'm too Left-wing to be a target".

Yet in one respect, Tony Benn was right: It was the beginning of a kind of turning point, alongside, perhaps, Bobby Sands and the hunger strikers of 1981.

We've come a long way, in terms of Anglo-Irish relations, and peace and reconciliation since then. And it is to Prince Charles' credit that although his private feelings at the time were "a violent emotion to see that something was done about the IRA", he nonetheless did pursue that path of peace and reconciliation he has now been advocating in Colombia.

Prince Charles made a quiet visit to Co Wicklow in February 2002, when he spoke at Glencree Reconciliation Centre: his theme was how Ireland had suffered over the centuries through an often anguished history - a theme Queen Elizabeth took up during her 2011 visit to the Republic.

Who would have thought, at the time of the Mountbatten assassination, that within a generation, Queen Elizabeth would be shaking hands with Martin McGuinness in Belfast?

Prince Charles' words in Colombia are not empty rhetoric: despite his "violent emotions" at the time of his loss, he, and arguably his family, have done their best to further the principle of peace and reconciliation, and this year, even McGuinness has said as much.

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