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Prince Charles visit: Reconciliation can hurt, but not like losing a loved one

By Alf McCreary

Published 23/05/2015

Historic meeting: Prince Charles and Gerry Adams greet one another in a symbolic week for Northern Ireland
Historic meeting: Prince Charles and Gerry Adams greet one another in a symbolic week for Northern Ireland

In a week of milestone events, many people will have looked at pictures of the handshake between Prince Charles and Gerry Adams with sharply different views.

Some will think that this is a symbolic step forward and others - including many people on both sides - will find that this image sticks in their craw.

There have been a number of notable symbols of reconciliation, including that of the late Senator Gordon Wilson, whose words after the murder of his daughter, Marie, by the Provisional IRA bomb at the Enniskillen Cenotaph touched the hearts of many people.

This was one of the worst atrocities of the Troubles, during which 10 others died and many were badly injured. I became close to Gordon afterwards when I was writing Marie's biography and I wonder what he would make of the handshake between Prince Charles and Adams today.

Gordon was a fine Christian and I expect that he would have approved of the handshake in principle, but with a heavy heart. I remember his great sense of depression after his secret meeting with the Provisional IRA in Donegal, which was long before the Good Friday Agreement.

Whatever you say about that handshake, perhaps through clenched teeth, we have to move on.

One immediate way that the republican movement might show that they are serious about making Northern Ireland work is to agree to the Stomont Budget and the welfare cuts, or are we doomed forever to the forked tongues of Sinn Fein?

What is not clear about the handshake, at the time of writing, is what Prince Charles really thought about it. He was very close to Earl Mountbatten, who was murdered at Mullaghmore, but the Prince's great sense of public duty has often over-ridden his own innermost thoughts.

It was significant, however, that he and his wife joined in an ecumenical service at Drumcliff Parish Church, where WB Yeats is buried. Maybe if he was alive today, he might write again of a beauty emerging across this land, but this time not so terrible.

It is also interesting that on these important symbolic occasions, there is often a Church service involved - this week in Drumcliff - and recently in Westminster Abbey, when the Queen and Prince Philip attended a service to mark the 70th anniversary of VE Day. God is still part of our consciousness at the top level.

Prince Charles' visit to Ireland, north and south, is further evidence as to how the Royal family can transcend divisions of all kinds and I am glad that his visit will also recognise the remarkable achievements by the Corrymeela Community in bridge-building during the past 50 years.

This week has also been a reminder that there are victims of violence on all sides and at all levels of society. Some years ago, I interviewed Countess Mountbatten for a book I was writing about peace-making.

She talked to me in her apartment in Knightsbridge, near Harrods, and she told me that on the morning her father died he had been in the library at his home in Classiebawn Castle, where he had been reading a weighty biography of Hitler.

As she talked about the death of her father and the others at Mullaghmore, her eyes filled with tears and I thought to myself, "This could be a woman from Ballymurphy, or east Belfast. Victimhood knows no barriers."

Perhaps if people can try to read that message into the visit of Prince Charles this week, the pain of that handshake may be seen in a better perspective.

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