Belfast Telegraph

Diana left her mark on Northern Ireland, on the lives she touched

To the delight of the crowds, she did a walkabout

It was a grey, damp autumn day in 1985 and in Northern Ireland the news schedules that morning had been typically grim. Thirty people were recovering from injuries sustained in a bomb attack in Londonderry over the weekend.

And earlier on that morning of October 21, a massive 1,000lb landmine planted at a telephone junction box in Newry had been defused by bomb disposal officers.

On a more prosaic level, for workers in Belfast city centre, it was just another Monday morning. Back to work and dull routine.

They had no inkling that arguably the most famous woman in the world was about to drop in for a visit that would make headlines across the globe and lift the spirits of a conflict-weary population.

To be fair, up until the evening before, even the Royal Household was unsure the surprise visit would get the go-ahead. The decision was taken only after a last minute assessment and assurance from security chiefs here.

But how quickly word spread!

By the time Diana, Princess of Wales, then only 24 years of age, had stepped from her blue bulletproof Jaguar outside the College of Art (now the Ulster University) they had gathered in their thousands.

At the bottom of Royal Avenue, outside the Belfast Telegraph offices, shoppers, office workers and very excited schoolchildren waited several deep behind the security tape.

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29 JUNE 1992

I remember well the mood, standing among them back then. The elation of being front row for this unexpected moment of drama.

The most talked about woman of the age, the front page face of every newspaper and magazine in the land, suddenly among us in Belfast.

From open office windows workers craned for a view. A few hastily daubed posters were waved from the College of Art windows. "Hi Di" read one.

For she was still Di back then, the affectionately abbreviated name by which the Press and the public referred to the vibrant young woman dressed that day in a beige wool suit with pencil skirt, pillbox hat and her trademark Lady Di pie crust collar.

After the official rounds of the college, she broke with protocol and headed straight for the crowds on the street. The welcome was full throttle. There is something about the cheers of a Belfast crowd that is less hurrah, more yeoooooh!

Diana got the full yeoooooh.

From the rooftops police snipers with rifles looked on and the crowds forward-surged to shake her hand, to cry out to her, to try to get a really good look.

Later in the day she paid her first visit to Hillsborough Castle before returning to a child care unit in east Belfast.

In all she was only here for five hours that day. In the era before mobiles and selfies the images were captured mostly in memory - not on phones or film.

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Princess Diana on her way to the opening of Barnardos Nursery at Windsor Avenue South Belfast 1991

They were images of a brief flicker of fun and light amid the gloom of Eighties Belfast.

Diana, Princess of Wales came to Northern Ireland a number of times - trips that ranged from visiting hospitals, charities and care centres, to offering comfort to the victims of terrorist outrage and morale-boosting visits to the troops. (The Princess of Wales Regiment made several tours of Northern Ireland.)

She came in good times and troubled times. Both for herself and for us.

The only time she came here with Prince Charles was in 1987 just after the horror of the Enniskillen Poppy Day bombing - an atrocity that shocked the world.

She and the Prince flew into St Angelo air base, going straight to the Erne hospital where they met men, women and children hurt in the blast which killed 11 people. Among those she chatted to were two teenage boys who had to be dug out from the rubble.

One injured woman asked the Royal couple to sign her Bible.

And there was a touching moment when Diana tenderly cradled a newborn baby. The infant had been born by Caesarean operation - an operation that had initially had to be delayed, she was told, as all hands at the hospital had been needed at that time to cope with the influx of the injured. Diana's visit to Enniskillen, and the people she met there, including bereaved relatives, touched her on a very human level. She is known to have kept in contact with some of them for years.

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Princess Diana visits the Erne Hospital the week after the Poppy Day explosion in 1987

In 1988 she returned to lay a wreath on the town's war memorial, and one of her last official visits to Northern Ireland was in November, 1993, just a few weeks before she announced she was standing aside from royal duties.

That visit was again to lay a wreath at the Enniskillen war memorial on what was the sixth anniversary of the bombing massacre.

Before that, in 1991, however, she came here for less sombre duties.

She was here to visit the Barnardo's family centre in Windsor Avenue in Belfast. Diana was Patron of the charity from 1984 until 1996 - a role that fitted well with her famous love of children.

During her Belfast visit she wrote her name on a specially polished brick in the wall. She joked about having difficulty reaching up as she daubed that flamboyantly familiar "Diana" in indelible marker pen.

News of another visit on a sunny day in June 1992 was leaked in advance - much to the annoyance of the then Secretary of State, Sir Patrick Mayhew. Newspapers reported that Charles would not accompany his wife on the trip.

By then the "fairytale" royal marriage was over - as all the world knew. Andrew Morton's explosive book had been published just a couple of weeks previously.

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Princess Diana visit to Northern Ireland at the Ulster Hospital in Dundonald.

Diana was greeted in Belfast by the supportive roar of thousands of well-wishers who lined Great Victoria Street as she arrived to unveil a plaque in the revamped Church House and Assembly Rooms damaged by a bomb. It was part of a major regeneration scheme in the city.

A television news reporter described how the warmth of the welcome "almost brought a tear to her eye".

Inside, she met local business people and discussed with them the unique challenges of trading in Belfast.

One of those she talked to was then Chairman of the Belfast Chamber of Trade, Mr Diljit Rana, now Lord Rana.

He told reporters at the time that she'd asked him about how hard it was for business people to cope amid the violence, how they kept going, facing such difficulties.

He said he'd told her that it was all down to the human spirit and that in times of trouble people "gain from internal strength and the support of others".

His kindly, wise words would of course have had a powerful resonance with the princess as she battled her own demons.

Back outside Diana again did an impromptu walkabout, crossing the street from side to side, time and time again, to the delight of the crowds.

Later that day she also visited Bryson House in Belfast and Hillsborough Castle where she planted a tree and met guests at a garden party. Despite her travails, her smile never faltered.

Diana's last public visit to Northern Ireland was in December 8, 1993, only five days after she'd announced she was withdrawing from official royal duties. Wearing a long camel coat, she dropped in on the Ulster Hospital at Dundonald. She looked relaxed. In her element.

She was moving on in her life. But she had only a few years left to live.

Diana left her mark in Northern Ireland not just in physical terms on that brick she signed, the plaques she unveiled, the tree she planted, but in the lives she touched here.

Even those who didn't get to meet her, who watched her from afar or on the evening news appreciated her visits to this place.

What counted wasn't simply that she came here. But that she came amid the darkest of days.

Belfast Telegraph

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