Belfast Telegraph

A first for the monarch as she experiences life behind bars

By Amanda Ferguson

It was the Queen's first visit to a prison. Albeit one that no longer houses inmates in its cells.

On arrival at the regenerated Crumlin Road Gaol visitor attraction in north Belfast, complete with staff in Victorian costume, the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh were accompanied by the Lord Lieutenant of Belfast, Dame Mary Peters, and Secretary of State Theresa Villiers.

First Minster Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, both of whom had been detained at the Crum in the 1970s and 1980s, also accompanied the royals on their visit to the infamous prison, which is now playing a vital role in peace-building.

As harpist Meabh Magee played for the Queen she was presented with a small posy of flowers, and the Duke of Edinburgh was thrilled to be given a bottle of 15-year-old Danny Boy Irish whiskey to take home with him. While it is usually a firm favourite photographic opportunity for tourists, the royal couple decided not to stop for a picture in the prison stocks.

The royals learned about the 19th century Grade A listed building's colourful past during a guided tour and heard about the history of the site, from when women and children were held within its walls, through to the separation of republican and loyalist prisoners, and its closure in 1996, before it was re-invented as a tourist attraction.

Lottery winner Peter Lavery, managing director of the Belfast Distillery Company, outlined his plans for a boutique whiskey distillery in the jail's A-wing, and in the courtyard 40 schoolchildren and their teachers were gathered as a string quartet from the Belfast School of Music played.

Niamh Hughes and Jessica Webb from Dominican College Fortwilliam were among those presenting flowers to the Queen.

"I think it's brilliant, a good experience for all the schools to have the opportunity to meet her," Niamh said.

Mr McGuiness described meeting the Queen on Monday and again yesterday as "hugely significant", "historic", "even astonishing" and "vitally important acts of reconciliation free of incrimination from the past".

He added: "I asked her had she ever been in a prison before and she had never been in a prison.

"It was her first time being in one, albeit a decommissioned prison being used a tourist attraction of huge benefit."

He added: "I think that she really enjoyed the visit and I think she enjoyed hearing Peter Lavery was going to open a distillery.

"Prince Philip was very excited about that."

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