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Royal visit 'show of solidarity'

A visit by the Prince of Wales to a Belfast Catholic church at the centre of bitter marching disputes involving Protestant loyal orders has been hailed as a positive show of solidarity.

The priest at St Patrick's Church, Father Michael Sheehan, said the decision by Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall to tour the historic place of worship was another step on the journey to reconciliation in Northern Ireland.

"Hopefully it's a small step forward," he said.

"Some people will be willing to follow that step, others may not yet be willing to follow that step on that journey, and others might never follow that step. But I think it's a step toward reconciliation and an acknowledgement of both pain and suffering on both sides of our community."

He added: "I think that standing with solidarity is a very positive message coming from the prince."

St Patrick's Church has witnessed disorder and discord in recent years, with some parading loyalist bandsmen accused of provocative and sectarian behaviour while passing by.

The visit by Charles and Camilla was in tune with the overall theme of reconciliation running through their four-day tour to both sides of the Irish border.

Yesterday Charles made an emotional trip to Mullaghmore in Co Sligo in the Irish Republic - the picturesque fishing village where his beloved great uncle Lord Mountbatten and three others were murdered by the IRA in 1979.

Today, Sinn Fein veteran and former IRA commander Martin McGuinness once again shook hands with the prince as he arrived at St Patrick's.

"I think overall the visit has been very important in relation to what I think is the next essential step in the peace process - that of reconciliation," said Stormont's Deputy First Minister.

"If we are to move forward to build a better future for our children, who are the most important people in all of this, then I think we do have to rise above old enmities, and whenever people make the effort to be part of a reconciliation process, then I think we have to welcome that."

Mr McGuinness said that he today congratulated the prince on speaking Irish during his address in Co Sligo yesterday.

"I said to him that I thought it was tremendous he honoured the Irish language and that he spoke very well in Irish and I think he was very pleased at that," he said.

Last month, 13 members of one loyalist band were convicted of playing a sectarian tune while marching in a circle on Donegall Street outside St Patrick's in 2012.

The bandsmen, who were accompanying parading Orangemen, were found guilty of playing the so-called Famine Song, which is played to the same tune as the Beach Boys' Sloop John B, but with anti-Catholic lyrics.

That incident marked the first of what would become a series of flashpoint incidents at the church. Weeks later disorder broke out after another parading controversy.

In subsequent summers, restrictions have been placed on loyal order parades passing the church, with residents from nearby nationalist neighbourhoods staging protests against the loyal orders and loyalist bands.

Loyal orders claim their lawful right to parade has been restricted and have insisted they have offered concessions in regard to limiting band music to hymns.

Inside St Patrick's today, the royal couple met a cross section of parishioners and organisations involved in a wide range of church activities.

Northern Ireland's First Minister Peter Robinson also attended the event.

"I think the palace have played an extraordinary role in terms of reconciliation relating to both within Northern Ireland, and between Northern Ireland and the Irish republic, between those of us on the island as a whole and those in Great Britain," he said.

St Patrick's is celebrating the 200th anniversary of the formation of its congregation.

Protestant church leaders joined Catholic counterparts inside the chapel to welcome the royal couple.

The couple also met schoolchildren from local schools and viewed the painting The Madonna of the Lakes by renowned Irish artist Sir John Lavery, who was baptised in the church.

There then followed a short prayer service led by Fr Sheehan and the Church of Ireland Dean of Belfast John Mann.

Before the prince and duchess left they were presented with a painting based on Lavery's famous artwork, as well as Aran wool sweaters for Charles's grandchildren George and Charlotte.

Ahead of the visit there was a small protest close to the church staged by relatives of 10 people shot dead by British soldiers in the Ballymurphy area of west Belfast in 1971.

But when the royal couple left only well-wishers lined the street opposite. The prince and duchess embarked on an impromptu walkabout to chat and shake hands with the locals.

After the visit, the couple went their separate ways to fulfil a number of engagements individually at various community projects across the city.

At an east Belfast community centre where those from a nationalist background mixed with unionists, the prince said: "The fact that it is working so well to bring members of both communities together in such an effective way is even more encouraging.

"I just want to say that it is a particularly valuable development and I wish all of you every possible success in the future."

The couple's final scheduled engagement of the day was a concert at the royal residence at Hillsborough Castle.

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