Queen's 90th Birthday: A very special relationship with Northern Ireland
The Queen has always viewed Northern Ireland as an important part of her Kingdom and she has played a significant role in the peace process
Elizabeth II was aged 27 and just one month on the throne when she made her first visit to Northern Ireland as Queen in July 1953. Many people have described this province as a place apart, but for the Queen it was always an integral part of her United Kingdom and through good times and bad she has been at pains to emphasise her concern for her troubled child. In all there have been 24 visits to Northern Ireland — 21 of them during her reign.
However, there was no hint of what was to come during that first visit as sovereign. The Governor of Northern Ireland declared a public holiday to allow as many people as possible to see Her Majesty and a detailed programme of her itinerary was published.
She paid a visit to Parliament in Stormont and attended functions in Belfast, Londonderry, Lisburn, Ballymena, Ballymoney and Coleraine. When staying at Hillsborough she was serenaded by a pair of Lambeg drummers.
As a princess she had visited Northern Ireland three times in 1945 with her parents King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother. They were back again the following year and in 1949 she arrived with her new husband Prince Philip.
Her second visit as Queen was in 1954 to launch the liner Southern Cross at the Harland & Wolff shipyard in Belfast and in August 1961 she and Philip returned with their children, Prince Charles and Princess Anne. The royal party landed at Carrickfergus, seemingly the first monarch to set foot in the east Antrim town since King William of Orange.
The first hint of anti-royalist feeling came in July 1966 when a concrete block was thrown at the royal limousine, denting the bonnet as it travelled along Great Victoria Street in Belfast. Her Majesty was unperturbed and continued with her duty to open a bridge across the River Lagan named in her honour.
However, she was to face a very different province when she returned 11 years later as part of her Silver Jubilee tour of the UK. The Troubles were raging and the IRA threatened “a visit to remember”, detonating firebombs in shops and business premises in Lisburn. Some 32,000 soldiers and police had been deployed to counter the terrorist threat.
Shortly before the Queen’s arrival an IRA bomb had been discovered in the grounds of the New University of Ulster at Coleraine, but Her Majesty, showing the resolve that has marked so much of her reign, was determined to fulfil all her engagements.
That included a meeting at Hillsborough with the founders of the Peace People, Mairead Corrigan and Betty Williams, who discovered that she had taken a keen interest in their work and was fully briefed on the tragic genesis of the movement.
Mairead’s sister’s three children were killed when a car driven by an IRA man — who was shot dead by soldiers — careered out of control and crashed into the family as they walked along Finaghy Road North in west Belfast in August the previous year.
It was 14 years before Her Majesty returned to Northern Ireland for a fleeting visit to present colours to four of the nine UDR battalions who served here and five more one-day visits followed in 1993, 1995, 1997, 2000 and 2001.
The following year, 2002, marked her Golden Jubilee and the Queen arrived for a three-day visit. With Prince Philip she went to Parliament Buildings — her first time in the building since 1953 — to see the power-sharing Assembly in action.
A proposal to address the Assembly in the debating chamber was dropped as it was feared Sinn Fein — then a minor partner in the administration — would walk out. Instead she gave a speech in the Great Hall. Sinn Fein were able to leave the building quietly without meeting her. She also made an unscheduled visit to the spot in Omagh where a Real IRA bomb had exploded in August 1998 killing 29 people, the worst single atrocity of the Troubles.
Another seven trips to Northern Ireland followed before perhaps the most historic visit of them all in June 2012 to mark her Diamond Jubilee.
It was then that the greatest drama ever played out at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast took place. She met First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, a one-time IRA commander. The former terrorist and the monarch shook hands, firstly in private and then for the cameras.
Mr McGuinness is said to have commented favourably on her 2011 visit to Dublin and Sinn Fein said the meeting was a “powerful signal that peace-making required leadership”.
The royal party also toured Stormont in an open-topped vehicle, demonstrating how tensions had eased during the peace process.
Her most recent visit to the province came in June 2014 when she marked the centenary of the beginning of the First World War by laying a wreath at the Cenotaph in Coleraine and on a lighter note visited the set of the Game of Thrones and met the experts from the TV series the Antiques Roadshow, who were filming at Hillsborough Castle.
Belfast Telegraph Digital