Belfast Telegraph

Royal visit to Northern Ireland: One is allowed to take a selfie during monarch's trip

By Ivan Little

Buzzing, bustling Belfast rewrote the history books yesterday as thousands of ordinary people took the chance to get up close and personal with the Queen.

It was a ground-breaking shift from tradition which would have been unimaginable just a few short years ago.

And the warmth of the welcome was reciprocated in the smiles of the Queen and her husband Prince Philip as they toured a number of key sites in Belfast which would have been no-go areas at the height of the Troubles. Even as the royal couple strolled around the set of the global hit TV series Game of Thrones in the Titanic Quarter, Government funders admitted that not so long ago the medieval fantasy would have seemed more believable than the prospect of yesterday's walkabouts in Belfast where the Queen didn't appear to have a care in the world and where there wasn't a republican protest or a boycott in sight.

Indeed the laid-back visit could just as easily have been in Sydenham in Kent as Sydenham in East Belfast. Yes, security was tight. The makers of yellow traffic cones must have been working overtime to produce the thousands of their distinctive markers to meet the extraordinary demand from the PSNI who had left them in every street in the city centre.

Yes, the security forces' snipers took up their customary positions on the rooftops but there was a definite sense that they weren't expecting any crisis in their crosshairs.

And aside from laying on courtesy cars for her subjects, the Queen's team couldn't have done much more to encourage the crowds to come out to greet the 88-year-old sovereign – and not from a distance either.

It was all in stark contrast to the dark days of royal visits during the Troubles when journalists who'd been briefed about itineraries could have faced a sojourn in the Tower of London if they'd breathed a word about where the Queen might be going to anyone who didn't need to know.

Consequently only a handful of people ever had the opportunity – more by accident than by design – to catch the briefest glimpse of royal visitors as they flashed past them in a bullet-proof limo or above their heads in a helicopter.

Yesterday even the radio traffic reports were giving out precise timings for the Queen's schedule so the public could drop by Crumlin Road Gaol, the Titanic Studios, the City Hall and St George's Market, which was open to all-comers who not only accepted the invite but also took selfies with Her Majesty in the background as bemused bodyguards looked on.

And all this only around the corner from where the IRA might once have relished the prospect of disrupting a royal visit with a bomb scare or something more akin to the real thing. Even in the pre-Troubles days the Queen wasn't always given the friendliest of welcomes in the area.

In 1966 a woman threw a bottle at the royal car at the back of the City Hall and a man hurled a concrete block at it from a building in Great Victoria Street.

It was to be another 11 years before the Queen returned and the Provos responded with a bomb hidden in a garden at the University of Ulster campus in Coleraine.

Fourteen more years went by before security chiefs deemed it safe enough for the Queen to visit here again, and in a television documentary of the visit she was seen flying over the Maze/Long Kesh and later saying: “You can be shot at any minute day or night. It's quite awful.”

But the pace of change has been so rapid that yesterday all that seemed like a bad dream, and men who were banged up in the Maze in 1991 were among the people who turned out to say hello and welcome the Queen to the new Northern Ireland.

Even the First and Deputy First Ministers, who showed the royals around the revamped Crumlin Road Gaol yesterday, were able to give them the real lowdown on the lock-downs.

For Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness, whose meetings with the Queen are coming thick and fast, are both old boys of the Crum, where thousands of loyalist and republican prisoners were held at Her Majesty's pleasure.

At the City Hall, where the Union flag was flying, the Queen — who seemed to be enjoying her visit more than a number of previous trips — summed up the positive mood of the day with a speech to guests invited by Belfast councillors. Her sentiments were in

effect the third instalment of her bridge-building efforts which began with her historic journey to Dublin in May 2011 and which she followed up with her address during Irish President Michael D Higgins' equally momentous trip to Windsor Castle last year.

Given the trouble which has erupted in the wake of the Belfast decision not to fly the Union flag at the City Hall 365 days a year, it was perhaps not surprising that the Queen should pick her words carefully.

She said that there would be challenges ahead, but she didn't spell them out, although she added: “Peacemaking is not always an easy task.

“But you have come this far by turning the impossible into the possible.”

Referring to the progress which she said she and the Duke of Edinburgh had seen at first-hand in the city, the Queen said Belfast should be an example to the world of people overcoming differences.

The fact that rank-and-file members of Sinn Fein, and not just Martin McGuinness, were listening to the Queen yesterday was a sea change in itself.

But amid all the optimism there was caution from an outsider with an inside track on Northern Ireland.

After Belfast, the royal visitors hosted a garden party at Hillsborough Castle where one of the guests was American diplomat Dr Richard Haass, who tried but failed to get politicians in Northern Ireland to iron out the last problems facing the peace process.

He reminded politicians that the parading issue still hasn't been resolved, with the height of the marching season just days away.

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