Belfast Telegraph

Prince Charles visit: Taboos broken, but we need to heed the political message

By Liam Clarke

I wonder if a few lines from Michael Longley's poem Ceasefire went through the Prince of Wales' mind before he grasped the hand of first Gerry Adams and then Martin McGuinness.

'I get down on my knees and do what must be done

And kiss Achilles' hand, the killer of my son'.

He is describing an incident in the Trojan War, when Priam, the Trojan king, speaks these words as he begs the Greek champion Achilles to get the body of his son Hector back.

It isn't mentioned in the poem, but Priam is later killed and his city destroyed; these gestures don't always come off fully.

Charles, and to a certain extent Adams, were taking a chance that could yet backfire, but the signs are it won't.

For Sinn Fein and Adams, this is catch-up time. They bitterly opposed the Queen's visit to the Republic, protested at it. Adams later said that she had left a bad taste by failing to apologise for British military wrongdoing in Ireland. That didn't go down well.

This time Sinn Fein has avoided such sour notes, though Adams did say he and the prince had a short talk in which both men "expressed our regret for what happened from 1968 onwards".

Adams said that they never mentioned the murder of 18 soldiers, many of them paratroops, in Warrenpoint. That was on the same day as Lord Mountbatten was murdered.

It was part of an offensive, sanctioned at IRA Army Council level, to avenge Bloody Sunday, where British soldiers, mainly paratroops, shot dead 13 unarmed people during a civil rights march.

The royal family must have heard about the slogan that appeared on the walls afterwards: '13 dead but not forgotten, we got 18 and Mountbatten'.

So this meeting involving Adams and Martin McGuinness, who were in the IRA leadership at the time, and Prince Charles, who is ceremonial head of the Paras and whose favourite uncle was murdered, touched the rawest of nerves.

That it could take place at all is a sign of how far things have come on in Anglo-Irish relations since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.

That made it all possible by removing the Republic's constitutional claim over Northern Ireland and replacing it with an aspiration for unity.

Relations could not really stretch to visits by Heads of State, or their families, when there was disputed territory between the two jurisdictions.

The royal and presidential visits have broken that taboo. There is now no longer much "unfinished business" between the two countries. Efforts will be made to lay the bitterness of the 1920s completely to rest in the forthcoming centenary commemorations.

As Sinn Fein president, Gerry Adams called the shots during the Queen's visit, but as a northerner he had a blindspot.

He didn't notice the political change that could produce a sea of Union flags at short notice so that the citizens of rebel Cork could greet the monarch.

In contrast, McGuinness smelt the coffee sooner. He called for no protests and started building links with the royals as part of his outreach to unionists.

So far there have been no protests in the Republic at Charles' visit. Any dissent in the first days took place across the border and was confined to Northern Ireland issues. For instance, Adams will have been embarrassed that the relatives of 11 people killed by the Paras in Ballymurphy in 1971 objected to his meeting with the prince. That is Adams' home estate, where he was based at the time.

There is a lesson for us here. As the Republic and Britain draw closer socially and economically, we are causing problems for both and aren't getting much sympathy.

If we cannot sustain devolution, it will not just mean a simple return to direct rule from London. If Stormont collapses, the British Government will then have much better understandings with the Republic than with our politicians and the south will seem like the most steady and reliable ally in finding a way forward.

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